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How VA Is Trying to Rewrite the Story on Caring for Vets

Maura Sullivan hopes the department’s focus on "success, one veteran at time" will change the narrative.

Every government agency deals regularly with bad press. But the public relations nightmare that exploded after long-standing management problems at the Veterans Affairs Department finally got Washington’s attention is in a league of its own. Veterans waiting months for medical appointments, employees falsifying data records, and an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at a major health facility are not the things you want to be known for when your mission is to protect and serve military vets.

Since July 2014, Secretary Bob McDonald (also known as just “Bob,” or “Secretary Bob,” in and outside the department) has been the public face of the VA, sprinting across the country to check up on department facilities, wooing med students, commiserating with vets, handing out his cell phone number to reporters—in general, absorbing everyone’s outrage over the agency’s failings.

He’s aided in that effort by Maura Sullivan, VA’s assistant secretary of public (and intergovernmental) affairs, though she’s kept a low profile since she arrived at the department in October. Sullivan did her first media interview in the job with Government Executive in February. The Iraq war veteran and Harvard University grad says she been focused on communicating with vets since her appointment. Sullivan, 35, was in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps as an undergraduate at Northwestern University in her native Illinois and served as a Marine Corps officer, deploying to Fallujah, Iraq, in 2005. Like her boss, the former head of Procter and Gamble, Sullivan was an executive at a high- profile private sector company, PepsiCo, before heading back to public service. 

Senior Correspondent Kellie Lunney visited Sullivan in her office overlooking the White House to discuss being part of the leadership team re- building, and rebranding, the VA, her military experience and boosting morale in the department.

How did you get from Pepsi to VA? Did you reach out to “Secretary Bob”? 

[Chuckling] It was an adventurous process. I was an appointee from the American Battle Monuments Commission. So I reached out to a number of people and said, “You know, I want to come help.” I think I said, “If someone needs to make coffee in the morning, I’m on the team, I want to be part of the team. I’m less concerned about where or how specifically, but I want to be part of this team.”

Do you have a strategy for how to communicate with the public versus how to communicate with veterans?  

Ultimately, our mission is to serve veterans and their families. We have to do that, while being proper stewards of taxpayer resources. We have to inform the American public of what we are doing. What we are really focused on now though, is communicating with veterans, ensuring that they understand their benefits and that they also understand the changes we are making at VA, because they deserve a VA that is centered around them. The changes aren’t going to happen overnight, so we really focused on telling them, “We realize we have to change, we heard you and we’ve got the right leader on board, and he’s got the right team on board and he’s got this thing called MyVa that we are putting in place that is oriented around you.” But it’s going to take us some time, so we’re committed to openness and transparency during that process. 

Is part of your job to point out to employees the good stuff that’s going on at VA? I imagine morale is not great at this point throughout the department.

Sometimes on our team, we talk about being storytellers. It’s a great job. And there are so many inspiring stories here. From employees, from veterans, from a letter from a woman in Maine in the press that talked about exceptional care that her loved one received. There were, I think, eight highlights I pulled this morning, saying “I’ve never received better care like this, I choose to go to the VA for care because of the camaraderie, because I see my friends and because it’s excellent care.” That happens in places across the country, and we get to help share that and make sure people understand. It’s a wonderful, incredible privilege.

People can become cynical, and say, “Well this is this leader’s vision, this is how Secretary Bob wants things to work and that may very well yield great results, but is that going to be sustainable when he leaves?” Are you getting that sense from employees who will be here long after the current administration is gone? 

I think the measure of a leader is the organization that he or she leaves behind when they step out of their role. What did you leave behind you, and is it better than when you got there? What Bob has done, this is about the veteran. And while there are a number of stakeholders here, ultimately we are going to measure outcomes and success one veteran at a time. People choose to work at VA. There are a number of other places where they could work, but they choose to come to VA because they want to serve veterans. And what Bob has done is say, “This is about the veteran,” and that legacy will long outlast all of us here. It’s bigger than any of us. 

Why did you join the military?

When I was young, I knew I would go into service at some point, but I didn’t really have a tangible concept of what that would be, or what I would be passionate about. My [high school] guidance counselor suggested I do ROTC. I hadn’t seen that many women in the military. I didn’t have any role models. I didn’t think I was the military type. And it turns out I was wrong, and she was right. In ROTC I discovered the Marine Corps, and joining the Marine Corps was probably the best decision I ever made. [Sullivan joined the reserves in 2006. Both of her grandfathers fought in World War II and her brother is an active-duty Marine. ]

Were you nervous?

I did a summer program after my freshman year in college in ROTC, where you do one week with every major community in the Navy. So you do one week of submarines, aviation, a week of surface warfare, and a week of Marine Corps. You are exposed to each one to give ROTC midshipmen the opportunity to see where they might fit in. And when I met the Marine Corps, so to speak, it was like meeting the person you’re supposed to marry. It was instantaneous. The camaraderie, the enthusiasm, the esprit de corps, the incredible work ethic—but the commitment to a purpose greater than yourself. You are up at 04:30 every day, and you weren’t in the rack until 23:30. You’d fall down exhausted, but you felt like you did something with your day. I knew right away that this was where I belonged, and that was kind of the beginning of the rest of my life.

This story was first published in the March/April edition of Government Executive magazine.

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