By Paula L. Pedene, APR, Fellow PRSA
I’m in good company as we commemorate National Whistleblower Day on July 30. After all, two Navy Sailors, Samuel Shaw, a Revolutionary War naval officer, and Richard Marven, a midshipman, were the first whistleblowers in 1776.
Shaw, a midshipman, and Marven, a third lieutenant in the Continental Navy, were moved to act after witnessing the torture of British prisoners of war by Commodore Esek Hopkins, then Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy. In reporting the misconduct of the Navy’s highest officer, they both were punished, dismissed from the Navy, and later faced criminal charges filed by Hopkins. Appalled by the case, the Continental Congress enacted a whistleblower protection law on July 30, 1778, and even helped provide resources to support their legal defense.
At the time, the law declared it “the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge.”
Today’s continuous issue is what happens to whistleblowers after they have done their due diligence in reporting misconduct, fraud, or ill will to others. Their truth-telling often significantly affects their careers, families, and life.
In my journey of exposing the VA Wait Time Scandal, I dealt with each of these consequences. Leadership put my VA Public Affairs Officer career on hold, undermining it. My children suffered immensely while watching their mom, who was so dedicated to caring for and serving veterans for decades, be treated unjustly. And I discovered how complicated and painful it is to deal with depression.
But as the saying goes, challenges can make you stronger, and mine did. I learned many things along my journey, and I wanted to share some of my lessons on keeping the faith in difficult times.
- Continue to do good work: It was devastating when I was removed from my high-profile VA Public Affairs Officer position and banished to the basement library as a clerk. No longer was I in the inner circle of leadership and influence, where I could improve policy, shape public opinion, or create information that would benefit the masses. Instead, my daily chores meant checking in library books, buying the newspaper and putting it on the rack for people to read, faxing documents, working with patients on computers, making copies, and even sharpening pencils. The most important thing that stayed the same for me was to do this job to the best of my ability. After all, it was about supporting our nation’s veterans.
- Proactively manage stress: This took me a while since I immediately quit working out and cried for prolonged periods when I got home. When I found yoga and meditation, I could feel some of the stress leave.
- Learn what not to do: When you’re involved in a lawsuit, your legal counsel warns you to watch what you say and be careful of whom you trust. I went from having thousands of people in my network to a hundred or so. Suddenly being ignored by people, I thought were my friends, or worse, being thrown under the bus by them, was devastating. I learned to heed my legal team’s advice, and I sought those who had enough courage to speak to me in public, send letters on my behalf and stand up for me based on my previous moral work.
- Pray continuously: As a Catholic, I took comfort in Mass, the Rosary, reading the Bible, continuous prayers, and seeking God’s wisdom at critical junctures along the journey.
- Hold true to your values: As a sailor, the Navy’s core values are honor, courage, and commitment. As a public relations practitioner, our code of ethics includes advocacy, honesty, loyalty, fairness, and independence. I embraced these values throughout the journey, stayed true to what I knew as the truth, and became determined to ensure that I stood up to evil, even if it meant standing alone.
Although these are some insights I gained in the process, I also lost ground. What still haunts me to this day are the lives lost by those veterans trapped in the system, the crossroads VA faces, and the lingering aftermaths of the crisis my family still endures.
The whistleblower journey is not easy, but for some, it’s a call we can’t ignore.
Paula Pedene is the author of the memoir A Sacred Duty, How a Whistleblower Took on the VA and Won. She also serves as the Executive Director of Honoring America’s Veterans, which produces the Phoenix Veterans Day Parade.