Even before he took over the Department of Homeland Security in late 2013, Jeh Johnson said one of his top priorities in the job would be improving the department’s perpetually low employee morale.
On Thursday, the DHS secretary took the latest step in that effort, personally bestowing a new award for valor on 10 DHS employees. The Secretary’s Award for Valor recognized acts of heroism, many of them while off-duty, as diverse as a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent who helped save an elderly man from a burning car; a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer who evacuated residents after a plane crash, and a Transportation Security Administration officer who helped stop an attack by a machete-wielding man at the New Orleans airport.
Johnson created the award last year, one of many such morale-boosting initiatives such as restarting a separate awards program that honored more than 300 DHS employees in October and increasing employee training. The government’s most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey showed DHS morale, which has been poor for years, plunging to new lows, with many employees saying the department treats them in an arbitrary fashion and has failed to recruit skilled personnel.
None of that was evident, however, during Thursday’s awards ceremony in a chapel at DHS’s Washington headquarters. Each winner was greeted with thunderous applause from the more than 150 DHS employees who watched as they shook hands with Johnson and deputy DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and posed for pictures.
“Today, we are here to acknowledge extraordinary people for extraordinary acts of heroism and valor,’’ Johnson told the crowd. “I’m extremely excited and pleased that we are doing this … and I’m confident that the acts of heroism and valor will keep coming.’’
Mayorkas, who has been heavily involved in trying to make DHS a happier place to work, said the new valor awards reflect Johnson’s desire “to champion and promote the great work that is done across our department every day.’’
Among those honored:
— ICE Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Christopher Pandolfi, who saved a man from a burning car in Vermont on Feb. 25, just before the car – which had contained a propane tank – exploded. He was assisted by Vermont State Police Detective Sgt. Karl Gardner, who was also honored Thursday.
— U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer Michael Hedlund, who saw a military jet crash in a residential neighborhood in California last year, rushed to the scene and evacuated multiple homes.
— TSA supervisory officer Carol Richel who was wounded in the March attack at the New Orleans airport, yet still secured her post and then came back to work the next day. Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Lt. Heather Sylve who was also honored Thursday, fired three bullets that killed the assailant.
— Secret Service Sgt.-Technician William Uher, who came upon an auto accident on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in November. Spotting flames under the car’s hood, he evacuated the occupant, DHS officials said.