The Washington Post

Rewards of federal service


Those who make sport out of denigrating the federal workforce should meet the winners of this year’s Samuel Heyman Service to America Medals.

During a period when some people think that federal employees are overpaid, and they face the uncertainty of budget cuts, the awards — better known as the Sammies — are a welcome and needed relief.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

This is the 10th anniversary of the Sammies, presented by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that focuses on federal employee issues.

“The recipients of the Service to America Medals showcase the good that government does, which positively affects our lives every day,” said Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and chief executive. “By honoring these outstanding public servants, we give America’s unsung heroes the long overdue thanks and recognition they deserve.”

The Partnership has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post.

The awards were presented Thursday evening during a black-tie gala attended by several top Obama administration officials.

And the winners are:

●Paul A. Hsieh, a U.S. Geological Survey research hydrologist, Federal Employee of the Year, the top medal. Along with other tools, he used a cell-phone photo of a computer screen image of the Deepwater Horizon oil well to develop crucial information needed to determine that a cap on the well would hold. For almost three months last year, the well gushed crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

“To me, public service is a noble and enduring cause,” Hsieh said, “and transcends any political and economic climate, which are temporary.”

●Alfonso Batres, a disabled Vietnam War veteran and chief officer of the Veterans Health Administration’s readjustment counseling service, Career Achievement Medal. Batres has increased the number of Vet Centers — small, storefront operations where veterans who have been traumatized by war can find counseling, other assistance and a welcoming environment. He expanded the number of centers to 300, a 50 percent increase in six years, and developed 50 mobile centers.

Batres once worked at a Vet Center in East Los Angeles. “I just really fell in love with it and fell in love with what I learned,” he told the Partnership.

●William A. Gahl, a physician and founding director of the Undiagnosed Diseases Program at the National Institutes of Health, Science & Environment Medal. Gahl works with other scientists to diagnose and treat diseases “so rare that they don’t even have names,” according to the Partnership.

●Ann S. Martin, senior intelligence research specialist, the Treasury Department’s financial crimes enforcement network (FinCEN), Call to Service Medal. Martin documented the flow of billions of dollars in drug money from the United States to Mexican banks. Her work makes it more difficult for Mexican drug barons to launder their dirty money.

“I’m passionate about my work at FinCEN because efforts to combat financial crimes, like money laundering, play an essential part in our government’s strategy to tackle the serious threat of transnational organized crime,” she said.

●Diane Braunstein, associate commissioner, Social Security Administration’s office of international programs, Citizen Services Medal. Braunstein helped develop a compassionate allowances program that allows disability benefits for those suffering from terminal and debilitating chronic ailments to be approved in days and weeks instead of months and years.

“Our citizens deserve the best possible service we can provide — especially when through absolutely no fault of their own — they require assistance,” Braunstein said. “When we improve service to our neighbors, we are making a tangible difference in people’s lives. I find that rewarding.”

●C. Norman Coleman, associate director, NIH radiation research program, Homeland Security Medal. He and his team have researched levels of radiation exposure harmful to humans and developed plans for dealing with a radiation emergency. Following the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Coleman went there with others to assess the risks from Japan’s damaged nuclear plants.

Like other winners, Coleman encourages careers in the federal service. “There are challenges facing our country that require an effective federal capability for the good of our country and the world,” he said.

●Charles Heurich (and team), program manager, National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), Justice Department, Justice and Law Enforcement Medal. Heurich and his NamUs team operate a powerful and searchable online database used to investigate missing and unidentified people.

“The NamUs program has brought resolution to the families of many missing and unidentified persons,” he said, “which, when you get to actually talk to or meet them, magnifies what it means to them to know that their loved ones’ case was not forgotten.”

●W. Todd Grams, executive in charge, Veterans Affairs office of management and chief financial officer, Management Excellence Medal. Grams “has led two major transformational management initiatives designed to create a coherent and unified department,” which leads to lower costs and better care for veterans, according to the Partnership.

“We are constantly striving to improve management, increase efficiency and effectiveness, and provide more and better services to our nation’s veterans,” he said in an e-mail.

●James Michael Duncan (and team), deputy chief medical officer, Johnson Space Center, NASA, National Security and International Affairs Medal. Although they generally work with space projects, advice from Duncan and his team proved valuable in the rescue of 33 miners trapped 2,300 feet underground in a Chilean mine last year. The NASA team went to Chile, assisted with the rescue capsule and consulted on health and psychological issues affecting the miners.

“We were able to bring the knowledge we learned in space to the surface, and under the surface, to help people here on Earth,” he told the Partnership.

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @Joe DavidsonWP

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