Exclusive Preview: Honoring the best public servants of 2012

What often gets lost amid the headlines and political chatter is what the government accomplishes.

Confidence in the federal government remains low, fueled by partisan gridlock in Congress, record budget deficits, an ailing economy and a heavy dose of election year rhetoric. What often gets lost amid the headlines and political chatter is what the government accomplishes — the inspiring stories of dedicated federal employees who each day are defending the homeland, caring for veterans, protecting the environment, ensuring public safety, making scientific and medical discoveries and promoting our national interests.

Every year, my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, looks forward to shining the spotlight on public servants who have made significant contributions to our country with the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies). Honorees are chosen based on their commitment and innovation, as well as the impact of their work on addressing the pressing needs of the nation. This year’s 33 finalists are contenders for nine Service to America Medals.

One of this year’s finalists is Kelly Menzie DeGraff, who with co-workers at the Corporation for National Community Service, deployed more than 300 AmeriCorps members to Joplin, Mo., where they coordinated the work of 60,000 unaffiliated volunteers in the days and months after the 2011 tornado that killed 161 people and destroyed 7,000 homes and businesses. They opened a missing persons hotline, led groups that cleared roads and debris, served meals to shaken residents, provided homeowner assistance, operated a donation warehouse and rebuilt homes across the city.

At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Lance Rodewald modernized the system for delivering vaccines to health care providers and clinics, provided increased training and education to health professionals about new vaccines and reduced racial, ethnic and economic disparities in immunization coverage so that more poor and uninsured children are protected against life-threatening diseases.

Louis Milione and colleagues from the Drug Enforcement Administration offer another illustration of exemplary public service. Milione led a high-stakes undercover investigation spanning three continents that resulted in the arrest and conviction Russian Viktor Bout, the world most notorious arms trafficker known as the “Merchant of Death,” who supplied weapons to the Taliban, Hezbollah, and to vicious despots and human rights abusers throughout Africa.

At the Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda, Md., Charles Scoville created an internationally recognized program that enables combat amputees to lead active lives and potentially return to duty. His program combines traditional medical and counseling services with a novel sports medicine regime for catastrophically wounded service members, an approach that gives amputees a sense of self-worth and keeps them physically active. Some of the 1,450 injured service members who have been through the program have gone on to complete triathlons, climb Mt. Everest and compete in gymnastics, skiing, scuba diving and other sports.

These represent just a sampling of the important and successful work undertaken by federal employees to ensure the nation’s health, welfare and security. It is easy to overlook such accomplishments, especially when the national discourse tends to be on the unsolved problems and the egregious errors.

But highlighting the positive work of civil servants can help restore public faith in government, improve our ability as a nation to meet collective challenges, and return public service to what President John F. Kennedy described as “a proud and lively career."

The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies) pay tribute to America's dedicated federal workforce, highlighting those who have made significant contributions to our country. Now in its eleventh year, the Sammies have earned a reputation as one of the most prestigious awards dedicated to honoring America’s civil servants. The 2012 medal recipients will be announced on September 13 at a Washington, D.C. black-tie gala. Visit servicetoamericamedals.org to learn more about the outstanding work of this year’s finalists.

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