In a final send off, DHS’ Johnson honors ‘family’ of employees with top awards

A Coast Guard employee whose heroism saved 12 people in a sinking vessel.

A group of “software slashers,” who led an Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigation of counterfeit Microsoft products, which led to the convictions of seven people and $20.6 million.

A team from the Homeland Security Investigations Unit, who quickly responded to a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California.

An employee from the Transportation Security Administration, who launched the customer service Twitter account, @AskTSA.

These were just some of the Homeland Security Department employees that top DHS leadership honored on Oct. 26 at the Secretary’s Awards Ceremony in Washington.

The department canceled the awards program in 2008. Johnson brought the program back in 2014 and has held three ceremonies since. Reinstating the secretary’s awards was one of the few moves Johnson quickly made when he first joined DHS in 2013.

“When we walked in the door 34 months ago — 1,038 days ago — we looked around and we recognized that we had a lot of work to do. We had a lot of work to do on the department and focused on … building the Department of Homeland Security that each of you deserve.”

Several senior positions were vacant. Morale was low.

But Johnson said he sees an upward trend of improving employee engagement at DHS.

“If we want to engage in reform, we have to focus on the men and women of this department,” he said. “We have to focus on your work, your working conditions. So much of our work has been on improving the pay scale, for example, of [enforcement and removal operations], for improving the transparency of training and promotion opportunities. I think we’ve done that.”

Now with a few months left before the end of the Obama administration, he and Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas took one final opportunity to recognize and thank their employees.

“It has been the privilege of my life to work alongside you and all your colleagues throughout the department,” said Mayorkas, who announced his resignation earlier this month. “It has also been a special privilege to work for and execute the vision of what I think [is] the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security’s greatest champion … the individual who really brought back the notion of true recognition.”

Johnson and Mayorkas handed out honors to more than 85 teams and individuals, which come from nearly every component in the department.

Brett Gunter of the Transportation Security Administration won the secretary’s highest honor, the Exceptional Service Gold Medal. Gunter was responsible for implementing a new, “groundbreaking” TSA officer training program.

Some other highlights included:

Patricia Wolfhope, DHS Science and Technology Directorate: She won a Secretary’s Meritorious Service Silver Medal for supporting more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in their efforts to find children in danger. Her work helped law enforcement agencies rescue 350 children to date.

Frank Minnick, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: Minnick developed a “surge” processing model to help USCIS meet the administration’s goal of admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees. He won a Secretary’s Customer Service Award and is also nominated for the President’s Award for Customer Service.

FEMA Grant Programs Directorate Team: The team, which won a Secretary’s Unit Award, found a way to clear 12,000 backlogged grant awards and improved business processes, which returned more than $239 million to the Treasury Department.

Margie O. Egliskis, ICE, Phoenix, Arizona: Egliskis’ work helped recover about $1 million in bond payments this year. She won a Secretary’s Award for Exemplary Service.

Jennine Gilbeau, National Protection and Programs Directorate, Arlington, Virginia: Gilbeau planned and led 54 cybersecurity exercises. She won a Secretary’s Excellence Award.

TSA Incident Command Center: 10 TSA employees in Washington established the command center, which helped bring government and industry together to cut passenger wait times. The team won a Secretary’s Excellence Award.

Steve K. Francis, ICE: Francis established the Middle Eastern Law Enforcement Officers Association last year. The program helped promote diversity of DHS employees of Middle Eastern descent. He won the Secretary’s Award for Diversity Management.

May 20, 2016 White House Team: Three Secret Service agents prevented an armed gunman from entering the White House. The team won a Secretary’s Award for Valor.

The awards ceremony, which the department held at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, is also an opportunity to recognize employees’ families, Johnson said.

“What’s remarkable is you have somebody walk up on stage who was involved in saving the life of 12 people or 20 people or an incredible team effort to bring about something that I know was really important, but I never had a chance to meet them face to face,” he said. “Those are always the two things that stand out.”

Johnson says he has less than 90 days now until his time at DHS ends. For Mayorkas, his tenure ends next week. But both leaders said their time at the department was a highlight of their professional careers.

“My mother’s family were Washingtonians,” Johnson said. “They were all like you, federal servants who loved their country, were patriotic. So when I look out at you, I see my family.”

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