Service to America Awards Honor VA Medical Center Director, Other Exemplary Federal Employees

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Six winners among 26 finalists will be recognized at the “Oscars of government service.”

The 18th annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (the Sammies), considered the “Oscars of government service,” will be awarded to six accomplished federal employees at a gala on Wednesday night.

The Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that hosts the event, expects about 600 attendees at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium in Washington. In addition to the Sammie presentations, there will be a fireside chat between former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He will receive the second annual Spirit of Service award for his contributions to public service from outside the federal government. 

“Our nation’s health and safety depend in significant measure on the work of career civil servants, who are largely unknown to the American people,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership. “Tonight’s recipients embody the very best in government, and we remain committed to ensuring America knows their stories, applauds their work and appreciates their service.” 

A selection committee made up of leaders from government, business, foundations, academia, entertainment and the media chose the six winners among 26 finalists from more than 300 nominations.

Federal Employee of the Year, the top honor, will go to Victoria Brahm, director of the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Wisconsin, who has worked for the Veterans Affairs system for more than 37 years. Since coming to the Tomah Medical Center in 2015 she has “repaired and bolstered staff spirit, put in place a state-of-the-art pain program and partnered with providers throughout the region to enhance the quality and range of care for veterans,” according to the Partnership. 

Brahm comes from a military family, so “the VA was a calling” and “so fulfilling [she] never left.” She is “really humbled” to be standing next to all the nominees and thanked the Partnership for seeking out “these people who do great things in government.”

This year the career achievement award will be renamed the Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement Medal to honor Volcker’s career in public service, which was made possible by a contribution from philanthropists Ray and Barbara Dalio. 

“Our goal is to remind people each and every year during the Sammies what an incredible public servant Paul Volcker was and is,” said Thomas Ross, president of the Volcker Alliance, a nonprofit launched by Volcker that advocates for effective governance. “Not only was he a great public servant, as chairman of the Federal Reserve, but he later served as chair of the Economic Recovery Commission under President Obama and had a career in government that spanned more than 30 years.” 

Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System, is the recipient of this award. As a trailblazer in brain trauma research, she said, “I don’t think of myself as a public servant.” McKee encourages those considering a career in public service to follow her lead and just “really embrace your own passion.” 

The additional winners are: NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana and the senior management team (management excellence medal); U.S. Agency for International Development Diplomatic Attaché and Foreign Service Engineering Officer Dr. Ryan Shelby (national security and international affairs medal); Storm Surge Specialist and National Hurricane Center Team Lead Jamie Rhome (safety and law enforcement medal); and Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Influenza Division Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan (science and environment medal). 

NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell will be the master of ceremonies. Special presenters at the gala will include: Veterans Affairs Department Secretary Robert Wilkie; Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla.; former NASA Administrators Charles Bolden and Sean O’Keefe; and Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management Margaret Weichert. 

Renamed in 2010 for entrepreneur and Partnership founder Samuel J. Heyman, the Sammies started in 2002 as a way to highlight talent in the public sector. Since then over 500 federal employees have been honored.

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