A SACRED DUTY:
How a Whistleblower took on the VA and won
by Paula Pedene
with Doug Williams
A Sacred Duty by Paula Pedene is a memoir about the author’s struggles as a government whistleblower. Pedene, a decorated veteran who later worked in the Phoenix VA Health Care System, witnessed a level of corruption that resulted in the deaths of many vets. After she took steps to see justice was done, she faced retaliation for her efforts. This is the true story about the VA Phoenix Wait Time Scandal that rocked the White House and how one patriotic American risked it all to do the right thing.
Fall publication is anticipated for A Sacred Duty. In the meantime, we invite you to check out last year’s contest winner, The Fergus by Tori Grant Welhouse, about a boy who goes on a quest through the Scottish otherworld, searching for a way to reconnect with his dead gran.
CHAPTER 1: A Day Like No Other
April 9, 2014 began like any other day for me. Well, like any other day since I’d been sentenced to purgatory in the library of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System (PVAHCS). But this day would end like no other.
I went upstairs to get the daily paper, the Arizona Republic, smiling and saying hello to a few folks along the way. Some actually smiled back. That was a far cry from much of the previous year, when many of my colleagues refused to meet my eye or, if they did, looked at me as if I were some kind of Judas. If you’re an accused security risk and charged with “serious allegations of misconduct,” people tend to believe the worst. When hospital leadership rules by fear, and a whistleblower stands up to take them on, allies are hard to come by.
Anyway, after I retrieved the paper, I took my long journey back to the library, dreading each step. For some reason, I suddenly felt the full weight of the past sixteen months burdening me once more. Some of it had lifted over time, as the occasional positive newspaper story appeared, or if my representatives scored wins against the monolithic bureaucracy that was the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). But what had begun as a bogus 30-day investigation of me back in December of 2012 had now stretched out to almost a year and a half, and the end was still nowhere in sight. My legal bills were stacking up. My family was unraveling. My depression was deepening. My emails were being monitored. The higher-ups were doing everything in their considerable power to force me out. And despite many, many letters and phone calls to VA in Washington, no one was paying any attention. It felt like I was reliving a nightmare that would not stop hounding me.
Back in the library, I returned to business as usual: Checking people onto the computers and ensuring they had their thirty minutes or more allotted to them. Making needed copies for the veterans, faxing their documents, letting them use the phone, sharpening their pencils, checking books in and out. Helping staff find the medical literature research they needed. Putting books back onto the shelves. Preparing for an upcoming continuing education forum, where I was the administrative point person, ensuring forms were signed and training credits were captured. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was what a Temporary Library Technician (my new “title”) did. And it was a far cry from what I’d been doing before Sharon Helman and Lance Robinson, the top two executives at the hospital, had forced me from my position as Public Affairs Officer and orchestrated a campaign to smear me professionally and personally. But my job was to perform my duties, no matter how mundane. That’s what members of the military do, and I was a decorated Navy veteran honorably discharged, and then re-enlisted during Operation Desert Storm. The fact that my library job was drudgery was not relevant.
As I went through my tasks, about the only thing that would break the monotony was taking a few minutes to watch a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing later in the day. I’d cleared it with my supervisor because, by that time, I cleared everything. Even my bathroom breaks. The length and frequency of those trips were monitored, too.
For the first hour and a half of the hearing, nothing earthshaking happened. Then U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, the committee chairman, began to question Dr. Thomas Lynch, who was the Under Secretary for Health at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Congressman Miller told Dr. Lynch that the next topic was “Unofficial wait lists at the Phoenix VA.” Dr. Lynch seemed unfazed by the fact. But he didn't know what the chairman knew, the secrets that I and my friend and fellow whistleblower Dr. Sam Foote knew, and the secrets that my superiors at the Phoenix VA had tried so hard to conceal – through intimidation, harassment, data manipulations, sham investigations, and the threat of career-ending personnel sanctions:
Executives at the medical center had engaged in a conspiracy and cover-up that was killing our veterans.
Congressman Miller eyed Dr. Lynch. Even on a computer monitor, and even though I am legally blind, I could see the restrained anger in his face. A moment passed. Then he asked a question that would bring down the house of lies that Sharon, Lance, and their confederates had so cruelly constructed:
“It appears as though there could be as many as forty veterans whose deaths could be related to delays in care. Were you made aware of any of this in your lookback?”
Winston Churchill once famously said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” On April 9, 2014, however, it was the truth that would rocket not just halfway around the world, but all over the world.
One of the darkest episodes in VA history would be exposed.
The dominoes would fall.