The spirit of service

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The careers and achievements of the men and women profiled in this supplement offer compelling evidence that work in government offers challenges that find no parallel in the private sector. These winners of the second annual Service to America Medals all have dealt with problems of fascinating dimension whose solutions are of great importance to our national welfare.

A new appreciation for government is abroad in the land, arising principally from the pressing challenges the nation faces in the international arena. Terrorism, the war in Iraq, and troubles in the Middle East and in Europe are front-page news every day, and more Americans now know that their security depends on compatriots working in defense, diplomacy, and intelligence occupations of the federal government.

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Still, it remains a challenge to interest people–especially young people raised in the go-go private economy of the past two decades–in government service. Government needs soldiers, sailors, and airmen, diplomats and spooks, but it also needs lawyers, accountants, doctors, financial analysts, trade specialists, and many, many others. And so, it can be said, government needs a makeover, a face-lift, to improve its public image and to shed the stereotypes that depress interest in working for Uncle Sam.

This is one objective of the SAM program, which was created last year in a partnership between the magazines of the Atlantic Media Co. and the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing the federal workforce. We wanted to celebrate the best in the federal service by honoring people doing interesting work and doing it well. And we wanted to publicize their stories. This supplement will be received by more than the 400,000 subscribers to our magazines–The Atlantic Monthly, Government Executive, and National Journal.

The pages that follow profile this year’s award winners, whose achievements span the great range of issues the people of government conftont. The winners include:

* Stephen McHale, who was assigned the job of creating a new 59,000 person agency, the Transportation Security Administration, charged with a vital mission in thwarting terrorism.

* James Bagian, a former astronaut who set out to invent a new system for improving the safety of patients in medical facilities.

* Alyson McFarland, who at the tender age of twenty-eight played an important role in a diplomatic crisis involving North Korean refugees.

* Paul Polski, an engineer whose federal laboratory developed explosive-detection technology–and who now is leading deployment of the machines in the nation’s airports.

* Riaz Awan, who was sent to the Ukraine to oversee construction of a $768 million sarcophagus to prevent more radiation leaks from the damaged Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

* Earl Stockdale, the army’s top environmental lawyer, who is constructing the legal framework for the largest environmental restoration program ever undertaken–in Florida’s Everglades.

* Denise Johnson, who for fifteen years has led America’s effort to eliminate polio from the world.

* Ed Needham, who headed the team whose investigative work led to arrest of the “Lackawanna Six,” a cell of al Qaeda partisans in upstate New York.

* Nelson Hernandez, who invented and now runs Money Smart, a program teaching low-income adults about using basic financial services.

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* This year’s winners will be honored at a black-tie gala at Washington’s National Building Museum. Cabinet members, members of Congress, figures from the entertainment world, and the national news media will be on hand to see them receive their medals.

Last year’s winners were celebrated in their agencies and communities. Some of their stories were of interest to the national media as well. The poignant story of the long, tough investigation of the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing by two FBI agents was one such case, for it brought to justice the men whose criminal actions killed four little bids.

By seeking justice in this case, Ben Herren and Bill Fleming made a big difference in the lives of the people so grievously harmed by the Birmingham bombing–as the father of one of the girls attested during last year’s awards ceremony. This year’s winners, too, have made a big difference in the life of our nation, quietly doing work essential to the public welfare.