Profile: Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson

— -- Jim Nicholson, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, succeeded Anthony Principi as secretary of Veterans Affairs. He was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on Jan. 26, 2005.

In his nomination speech, the president said Nicholson "is a patriot, a man of deep conviction who has answered his country's call many times."

Nicholson, a former Republican National Committee chairman (1997-01), has served as the ambassador to the Holy See since August 2001. He graduated from West Point and became a decorated Vietnam War veteran, lawyer and successful home developer in Colorado before chairing the RNC.

He led the RNC when President Bush was first elected in 2000 and left the committee with money in the bank and an expanded voter list of more than 160,000 names.

"The boy from Struble, Iowa, may serve in the president's Cabinet. How could this happen?" Nicholson asked in his acceptance speech. "For me, it is because of the opportunities that my country gave me as a cadet and has a soldier."

Nicholson graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1961 and became an Army Ranger and a paratrooper. He left the Vietnam War a much-decorated soldier, and after eight years of active duty, went on to serve 22 years in the Army Reserves. He retired in 1991 as a full colonel.

He will be taking over the Department of Veterans Affairs during a time of serious financial strain, when soldiers are returning from war and in the face of numerous budget battles.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is the second largest in the federal government, with more than 220,000 employees who oversee health care and benefit programs for the country's 25 million military veterans.

The department's resources became especially strained beginning in 1998 when Congress passed legislation largely expanding the number of veterans who qualified for health care services. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased the numbers of those needing assistance by the thousands.

Nicholson, 66, and his wife, Suzanne, have three children. He has a master's degree in public policy from Columbia University and a law degree from the University of Denver.

Nicholson was awarded a Bronze Star and a Combat Infantryman's Badge for his service in the Vietnam War.

As a home developer, Nicholson is credited with turning the small town of Parker into a fast-growing suburb of Denver, according to The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News.