When Lance Cpl. William "Kyle" Carpenter and his fellow Marine were attacked by enemy fighters in Afghanistan in 2010, Carpenter shielded his friend with his own body from an incoming grenade.
Carpenter, the nation's most recent Medal of Honor recipient, is "an American hero by any definition," President Obama said solemnly Monday. Yet even this hero felt left behind by the Veterans Affairs Department's health care system once he returned to the U.S., the president said, illustrating the enormity of the problems with the VA.
"He often felt like a number, he said, being passed between doctors," Mr. Obama said, relaying the experience that Carpenter shared with him. "We have to do better," the president continued. "We have to do better for Kyle. We have to do better for all of our wounded warriors. We have to do better for all of our veterans from all of our wars."
To help right the ship at the VA, Mr. Obama has nominated Bob McDonald, the former chief executive of Procter & Gamble and a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, to serve as its next secretary. The decision to nominate a longtime businessman -- rather than a decorated general, doctor, or politician like other recent VA secretaries -- comes as a surprise to some.
Veterans advocates are cautiously optimistic about the move but warn that McDonald has his work cut out for him.
"He does have a background with branding... that's going to come in handy," Paul Rieckhoff, the CEO and founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), told CBS News.
"The VA has become a punchline in America," Rieckhoff said, and restoring its reputation among veterans is "going to be a lot more challenging than [winning over] the consumers of Tide."
Perhaps most critically, as the U.S. winds down its presence in Afghanistan, McDonald will have to regain the trust of his "growing customer base" of young veterans, Rieckhoff said. The IAVA recently surveyed its national membership, and over 50 percent said the VA is not doing a good job.
"We need him to spend some time connecting with our members... showing that he's really committed," Rieckhoff said.
After Mr. Obama formally nominated him on Monday, McDonald said it would be "an honor and a privilege... to improve the lives of our country's veterans and help change the way the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does business."
"My life's purpose has been to improve the lives of others," he said, recounting how he went to West Point to "try to help free people who were living in non-free societies" and later became an airborne ranger infantry officer in the 82nd Airborne Division "to be on the front line in leading that change." McDonald said he joined Procter & Gamble "because of its purpose, which is to improve the lives of the world's consumers."
Garry Augustine, the Washington executive director of Disabled American Veterans, sounded encouraged by McDonald's nomination, urging Congress to quickly confirm him.
"We believe his military and private sector management experience can bring about much-needed and overdue change at the VA, especially to improve accountability, transparency and efficiency," Augustine said in a statement.
The American Legion similarly said it looks forward to hearing about McDonald's plans for the VA. At the same time, the group issued a reminder that finding a new secretary is just the first step to rectifying the problems at the agency.
McDonald "will need to have complete hiring and firing authority, along with a willingness to see that those who committed illegal acts are prosecuted," American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger said in a statement.
"The first thing everyone should know is that those responsible for manipulating or falsifying records at the VA, and those who tolerated it, are being held accountable," the president said. "Some officials have already been relieved of their duties and investigations are continuing. And as I've said, where we find misconduct, it will be punished."
The administration is also moving forward with reforms at the Veterans Health Administration, such as eliminating the 14-day scheduling goal that incentivized the misconduct at the agency. Additionally, bonuses for VHA executives have been canceled. The administration is also working to get veterans off of waiting lists, while adding more staff and mobile medical units to serve them.
Mr. Obama on Monday also appealed to Congress to do its part to solve the problems at the VA. In addition to confirming McDonald, the president asked the Senate to confirm VA CFO nominee Helen Tierney; Linda Schwartz, his nominee for VA assistant secretary for policy; and Constance Tobias, his nominee to lead the Board of Veterans Appeals.
"They have all been waiting and waiting and waiting for a vote," Mr. Obama said, "in Constance's case, for more than a year. We need them on the job now, and Congress needs to act and help us do right by our veterans. We've got to do right by veterans like Cpl. Kyle Carpenter."