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Honoring the often invisible public servants

Watch Judy Woodruff’s complete interview with award-winners Rana Hajjeh and Ed Kneedler

They saved thousands of lives through vaccine campaigns, argued more than a hundred cases in front of the Supreme Court, recovered hundreds of millions of dollars from fraudulent Medicare costs and greatly improved the lives of paralyzed veterans.

They are civil servants, and the recipients of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals; better known as the Sammies. On September 22, hundreds of federal leaders and employees gathered to honor these recipients. Two of the honorees sat down with PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff to talk about their awards and the huge difference public service continues to make.

Rana Hajjeh received the top medal, the Federal Employee of the Year. She works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and received the award for leading a global campaign to convince some of the world’s poorest countries to use a vaccine that fights meningitis and pneumonia. An estimated seven million children’s lives will have been saved by 2020 because of the initiative.

Ed Kneedler was awarded the Career Achievement Medal for his distinguished career as a deputy in the solicitor general’s office. Kneedler has argued 125 cases before the Supreme Court — more than any other attorney currently practicing law. He has represented the government’s interests throughout the administrations of both political parties, tackling issues ranging from affirmative action to free speech to, more recently, health care.

The Sammies are an increasingly rare opportunity to acknowledge the work by outstanding civil servants such as Hajjeh and Kneedler. In a time when the country’s perception of work in Washington, D.C. is at an all-time low, it’s more important than ever, said Hajjeh, to communicate their efforts.

“We need to communicate better with the rest of the country what great work is going in government agencies,” Hajjeh told Judy. “At CDC we are controlling diseases, we are monitoring day by day what is going on inside the U.S. and outside the U.S. so that we can better protect our country.”

Public service is a career choice and one, in Kneedler’s case, which probably led to significantly less financial gain than the private sector. Though, as Kneedler said, he and other public servants are focused on the difference they can make and not their own achievements.

“The people working on these public service programs are dedicated, energetic, and creative – part of what makes public service so attractive is that you get a lot of responsibility early in your career, so early in your career you get the sense that you can make a real difference,” Kneedler said.

You can see a full list of the recipients on the Service to American Medals website.

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