Service to America Medal To Honor Top Civil Servants

Posted June 22, 2004 at 2:41pm

A host of federal workers from across the nation were recently honored on Capitol Hill for achievements ranging from security and social service to science and environmental innovation.

The Service to America Medals, established by the Partnership for Public Service and Atlantic Media Co. in 2002, were created to highlight these accomplishments and make government work more attractive to talented people, said the partnership’s president and CEO, Max Stier.

Most people don’t have any idea about the breadth and depth of the work that their federal employees are engaged in, Stier said at a luncheon recognizing the 28 award finalists.

The eight winners, to be announced Sept. 28, will receive monetary awards ranging from $3,000 to $10,000 for their accomplishments.

“It’s hard to tell the story of government if you talk about government programs. That turns people off,” Stier said. Presenting the unique experiences of the individuals that make government work is what resonates with people, he added.

Like the story of Customs inspector Jose Melendez-Perez, who intercepted the potential “20th hijacker” trying to enter the United States a few weeks before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Melendez-Perez encountered a man known as al Qahtani at the airport in Orlando, Fla., whom he said triggered his suspicions almost immediately because of the challenging stares and vague responses he gave during questioning.

According to Melendez-Perez, al Qahtani said he had a one-way ticket to the United States because he didn’t know where he was going after his six-day vacation. “Wrong answer,” thought Melendez-Perez.

Thinking al Qahtani may have been a hitman, Melendez-Perez successfully urged his supervisors to deny entry. “It took me about two hours to get him out,” said Melendez-Perez, who escorted al Qahtani to the next plane back to London.

Melendez-Perez, who has been working with immigration for 12 years and served 26 years in the Army, is nominated for the Homeland Security medal.

Another team of nominees is responsible for reducing the number of telemarketing calls that pervade U.S. households.

More than 60 million consumers who are no longer inundated with these calls have Eileen Harrington and five other Federal Trade Commission employees to thank for spearheading the federal Do Not Call Registry. They are nominated for the Social Services medal.

In 1999, the FTC discovered that consumers were highly dissatisfied with the provision requiring businesses to maintain Do Not Call lists, said Harrington, explaining how the idea for registry was born. “They didn’t feel that it was being complied with.”

Public hearings and written comments we received indicated that change was necessary, Harrington said. “There needed to be more effective ways for consumers to register their preferences and to have them honored.”

Although the federal registry was considered a good idea, people thought too many obstacles would make it improbable, Harrington said. She listed the ability to handle a high volume of calls, the constitutionality of the registry, and confronting a powerful industry as some of the concerns.

“There were a lot of challenges, but we did it,” Harrington said.

The federal government has also collaborated with the entertainment industry to capture the public’s attention. As director of health programs at the Food and Drug Administration, Marsha Henderson has helped coordinate a Gladys Knight concert in Las Vegas as part of a diabetes awareness campaign.

“We look at the data and health status of the population and market our programs that way,” Henderson said.

The FDA found that the population in Las Vegas generally works 14-hour days, eats fast food, and is around alcohol and cigarette smoke much of the time.

“We could look at their health profile and see that they’re at risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke,” Henderson said.

Aside from coordinating the concert, the FDA has worked with casinos to provide educational health information for wellness clinics.

Henderson has spent about 26 years educating underserved communities about detecting and preventing life-threatening diseases. She is up for the Career Achievement medal.

The award program is growing in recognition, Stier said. More than 500 federal workers were nominated this year, a 40 percent increase over the 2003 nomination pool.

Stier added that the group wants to share the stories with the American people about the great things that civil servants are doing and inspire a new generation into service.