Thomas K. Turnage, a retired Army major general appointed by President Reagan as director of the Selective Service System and as the final administrator of the old Veterans Administration, died of cancer Sunday at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 77.
Turnage, who held the position for three years, was the last person to oversee the VA before it became a Cabinet-level agency in 1989.
He played a key role in the transformation of the VA to Cabinet status, which meant more say in health policy and budget matters.
Funding was of particular concern because the VA’s size made it a favorite target of those wishing to trim the federal budget. In 1989, it had more than 240,000 employees and a $25-billion annual budget and now has a budget of about $50-billion and 218,000 employees.
During Turnage’s tenure, he participated in congressional hearings about mismanagement at VA hospitals and became a target of Vietnam veterans group protests regarding Agent Orange. The defoliant, which contained the chemical dioxin, was allegedly linked to medical ailments from cancer to birth defects and was a volatile subject for tens of thousands of servicemen exposed to it during the Vietnam War.
The general’s position was that there needed to be a direct “causal relationship” between exposure to Agent Orange and resulting diagnoses, which at the time was not clear.
The Veterans Affairs Department now is compensating more than 8,000 veterans for Agent Orange-related illnesses, such as respiratory cancers, soft-tissue sarcoma and prostate cancer.
A native of Conroe, Texas, Turnage was a graduate of UCLA and received a master’s degree in international relations from George Washington University. He also was a graduate of the Command and General Staff College and the Army War College.
He was commissioned an Army infantry officer in 1942 and participated in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. He joined the California Army National Guard in 1949 and was recalled to active duty for the Korean War.
After the war, he returned to California, helped to establish order in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles after riots in 1965 and in the 1970s became deputy commanding general of the California Army National Guard.
After retiring in 1982 as a major general, Turnage was director of Selective Service until 1986.
Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Betty Jane “B.J.” of Rancho Mirage; two children, Dr. Robert Mason “Bo” Turnage of Ellensburg, Wash., and Andrea Turnage of Palm Desert, Calif.; a brother; and four grandchildren.