As the National Transportation Safety Board’s chief expert on cockpit voice recorders, James Cash has spent nearly 30 years painstakingly examining evidence to help pinpoint the causes of airline disasters and other transportation accidents.

His work has helped to develop a new generation of recording devices, led to aviation reforms and resulted in greater safety for the traveling public, colleagues said.

On Thursday, Cash is being awarded with the 2012 Service to America Career Achievement Medal. The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, or “Sammies,” are considered among the most prestigious awards for U.S. civil servants.

But Cash, a 60-year-old Purcellville resident, considers his accomplishments modest in comparison to other federal employees being honored. This year’s winners include researchers battling AIDS and bone marrow disease, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who helped convict a notorious arms trafficker and officials helping combat amputees and fighting homelessness among veterans.

“Some of these people are doing incredible stuff,” said Cash, chief technical adviser for the NTSB’s Office of Research and Engineering. “I don’t consider myself in their category, so it’s kind of humbling.”

James Cash, the National Transportation Safety Board’s chief expert on cockpit voice recorders, is being awarded the 2012 Service to America Career Achievement Medal. (Sam Kittner/The Washington Post)

Cash, a former Air Force F-4 fighter pilot, said the awards are useful reminders of the work being done by federal workers, “especially in these times, when everybody’s fed bashing, from presidential candidates on down.”

That view is echoed by Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which sponsors the awards.

“In this political season, we see people again and again tearing down our government,” Stier said. “We will never get what we want out of our government if we focus solely on its shortcomings and fail to celebrate its successes.”

Stier said the medals take on additional meaning in the wake of the killings of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Libya on Tuesday. “This is a reminder that our civil service puts itself in harm’s way,” he said. “You look at Jim Cash and Chris Stevens, and these are amazing people, and the American people, by and large, don’t know their stories,” Stier said.

Lynne Mofenson of the National Institutes of Health won top honors as Federal Employee of the Year for her role in battling AIDS among children by developing ways to prevent mother-to-child transmission.

“I view this award as honoring the work of many hard-working and dedicated people, both within and outside of the government, who contributed to the research that has enabled us to now talk about an AIDS-free generation of children,” Mofenson said.

Jacob Taylor, a 34-year-old physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, won the Call to Service Medal for “pioneering scientific discoveries that in time could lead to significant advances in health care, communications, computing and technology,” the Partnership for Public Service said. The award goes to a federal employee younger than 35 in government service for less than five years.

Susan Angell, executive director of the Homeless Veterans Initiative for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Mark Johnston, acting assistant secretary for community planning and development at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, won the Citizen Services Medal for their work on an interdepartmental program credited with helping reduce the number of homeless veterans by 12 percent in one year, part of an ambitious goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015.

Chuck Scoville, chief of amputee patient care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, won the National Security and International Affairs Medal for his work developing a sports-based rehabilitation program enabling combat amputees to lead active lives and potentially return to duty.

Special Agent Lou Milione and his “Operation Relentless” team at the DEA won the Justice and Law Enforcement Medal for an undercover sting spanning three continents, which resulted in the arrest and conviction of notorious arms trafficker Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death.”

Elliott B. Branch, deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and procurement at the Navy, won the Management Excellence Medal for his work overseeing major acquisition for the Navy and Marines, “ensuring our warfighters have the right equipment when they need it, at the best possible value for the American taxpayer,” the partnership said.

Neal Young, chief of the hermatology branch at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health, was honored with the Science and Environment Medal for groundbreaking research and treatments for patients with bone marrow failure diseases, including the rare and once deadly blood disorder known as aplastic anemia.

Nael Samha and Thomas Roland Jr. of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection won the Homeland Security Medal for their work creating a smartphone application. The app allows agents in the field to quickly access law enforcement databases, which has led to enforcement actions against more than 450 drug traffickers, weapons smugglers, illegal immigrants and potential terror suspects since March 2010, the partnership said.

This year’s winners were selected from more than 400 nominees by a committee, which included representatives from the government, academia and the private sector. Nominations for the 2013 awards are being accepted at The winners and finalists will honored at a gala Thursday evening in the District.

2012 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalists

The “Sammies,” as the highly regarded honors are known, are offered in nine categories and sponsored by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.