Ray Blunt

In 1977, the first official appointment that the new President Carter had was with Max Cleland, soon to be the new VA Administrator (before it was a Cabinet agancy) and the first Vietnam veteran to head the agency. The VA was awash in complaints of lack of caring and poor quality service on the GI Bill and uncoordinated and badly dated rehab for wounded vets. As a triple amputee and someone who knew firsthand the horrors of not only war but a placid bureaucracy, Max hit the VA like a breath of fresh air where most of the senior leaders were of WW II vintage and perhaps a bit complacent. His passion, his caring, his willingness to drive change all were a tonic to a young, Vietnam era former Air Force officer who was already feeling the tug of bureaucratic inertia on his soul after a mere three years since discharge. He drove change by dint of his caring and taught everyone to care; that we were (in the words of Omar Bradley) dealing with the problems of those who gave up their youth, not our problems; that they were people not pieces of paper to process. And he had a laser focus on what he called “my priorities” and insisted they were reviewed monthly for progress, highlighted and fully funded in the budget, and acted upon by all 250,000 employees. He insisted that every phone call be answered by “This is Ray Blunt, VA, how may I help you?” He also sought to grow the next generation of leaders by launching what was called Leadership VA, a one year program for the next generation, with 60 attendees handpicked by a panel he appointed, not by the incumbents because he was trying to find those who would be change agents of caring who could work across the boundaries. One of his main goals was to raise up a generation of leaders who would know each other and share a common set of values and experiences in both the Headquarters and the field. That legacy of Leadership VA remains as the most coveted program on the leadership journey in VA. He also began to put young Vietnam era people into senior leadership positions and gradually began to transform the thinking and the results for those who served. To this day, I owe my start in public service leadership to his sponsorship and that of my immediate boss and mentor, Red Leffler, also a severely wounded Vietnam vet. Even more, I owe my understanding of the importance of caring for the people we serve in public service and what a marvelous calling it can be when we clear out the barnacles of encrusted ennui and cynicism. People are waiting for courageous and passionate leadership and we all can never underestimate what an impact we can have in a small circle or large. His book, still on my bookshelf, helped me understand what drove him and is a wonderful autobiography where the title aptly describes the man: Strong at the Broken Places.