This one is a little longer than usual.
On New Year’s Eve I took the final water aerobics class offered for 2021 at my local recreation center. For some reason, on this day, a couple of women in the class felt particularly chatty. After class, I usually stay after and do laps to continue to burn calories. As this class ended and most folks moved thru the water to get out of the pool, I casually wished a group of women “Happy New Year”. One woman in the group stopped and struck up a light conversation with me, sharing little snippets about her life right now. She very easily began telling me her holidays, about her husband, children, grandchildren, about friends and relatives that have had knee replacement surgeries, how great she feels after using swimming and water aerobics as her outlet during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that she was retired from federal service.
After our conversation ended and I floated away to begin doing laps, I reached the far end of the pool when another woman decided to do a cannonball entry into the pool. After her grand entrance and the waves simmered down, our lapping paths eventually crossed allowing for a greeting, which led to a comment and question that required more than a smile or facial gesture, “I’ve never seen this many people here on a Friday. What did I miss?” she asked. Treading water we stopped and I told her that she just missed the final class of the year. I went on about other classes and the ones that I preferred. That provided an opening for us to learn that we are both originally from the Midwest, talk about our families, how the east coast changes you, divorce, children, and again, retirement from federal service.
“Federal service” - the words that they both used, one retired from the Department of Agriculture and the other retired from working in the intelligence community. Those words suddenly struck me and resonated deeply with me because in my, now 15 plus, years of working for the federal government for agencies under the Department of Health and Human Services, I think I must have lost the perspective that I have been and continue to work in public service for my country and for the citizens of this nation. No, this is not some tone deaf patriotic prattle of a journal entry. It is the recognition that however flawed and polarized, however fractured and close to the edge of collapse the United States is or becomes, those of us who are career civil servants that raised our hands on our first day of work and took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States and promise to do our jobs to the best of our ability, work in service for the people of this nation.
I’ve been sitting with this for the last 24 hours, “federal service”, coming to terms with this oath, the one that essentially the President of the Unites States takes, Cabinet Secretaries take, career civil servants take, and soldiers on the battlefield take. I have taken three positions with the federal government on purpose. In fact, I remember chasing down federal service while working for a university hospital in the area, going to my car at lunch and on breaks to inquire on the status of federal applications or shed tears at my denial of federal positions until I was fortunate enough to land my first federal position with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Up until this time I had worked as a legislative analyst, worked in community radio, public radio, public relations, worked as a Press Secretary for a Member of Congress, and I was even self-employed for a while.
When I worked for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality I supported research that would lead to prevention of pressure ulcers during long-term care, supported research that would lead to falls prevention guidelines, and supported the comparisons of the risks and benefits of therapies and treatments for all kinds of conditions, from GERD to hypertension, from type 2 diabetes to uterine fibroids. At the Office on Women’s Health I had the honor of leading the development of curriculum to teach providers how to screen for and support patients for Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), I supported work on HIV prevention in women, raised awareness of female genital cutting, and led community-based work across the county on the prevention and treatment of opioid use disorder in women. Currently at the Health Resources and Service Administration, I lead an awesome team of nurses, epidemiologists, and other public health professionals that respond to the needs of vulnerable communities across the country providing clinicians that serve in community-based health centers with technical assistance on the elimination of HIV, screening and treatment of hepatitis, heart health, chronic diseases, tobacco use cessation, and even climate change impact on health. Oh and I almost forgot to mention supporting the advancement of precision medicine.
I struggle with the often misguided public perception of federal service, employees labeled as overpaid, under qualified, our reputations and work ethic kicked about like toilet paper stuck to the bottom of a shoe and begrudged regular annual cost of living increases. Federal service is no longer promoted to young people as a privilege, a unique opportunity to support ideals, ideas, scientific discovery and innovation that can lead to the advancement of communities of people across the country. Rather, it is just something that is portrayed as jobs that people just fall into, taking up space, until they can retire with perceived undeserved retirement savings. I sat about coming up with retorts for the next person that knocks federal employment. They should be asked, “when was the last time you performed a true service of any kind for your country?”
The service that I and others in federal service provide this country is different than that of a member of the armed forces, but it is absolutely service to this country. So when I hear someone say, in passing, “thank you for your service” to a member of the armed services, inside I smile a bit because I know that I too serve this country.
This may not be the New Year's message you were expecting, but it is the message that I an others might need to remember the commitments that we made to federal service and to sustain that perspective moving into even more challenging ahead. For me it took a couple of conversations with ladies at the pool to put things back in perspective. I can't wait to see what clarity will come from conversations at the pool in the new year.