Gloria Hairston, Director of public affairs and community relations at the Washington, DC VA Medical Center

WASHINGTON—It’s a constant refrain from VA leaders and staff that despite the continual spotlight that VA finds itself in, the public, legislators and even veterans themselves are unaware of just how much good work happens at VA facilities on a daily basis.

As director of public affairs and community relations at the Washington, DC VA Medical Center, getting that word out is Gloria Hairston’s profession and passion.

Working in government agencies for 27 years, her journey to VA started out very humbly, she explained. “I started as a custodial worker at the Smithsonian Institution. I’d just completed an undergraduate degree in mass communications with a focus on television production.”

Hairston would work an eight-hour shift, then change out of her custodial uniform into a suit to volunteer in the Smithsonian public affairs office.

“I was just trying to get my feet wet in the field,” she explained.

Eventually she transitioned out of custodial work into a job at the Smithsonian public affairs office, while also landing an internship at Fox 5, where she would rise in the ranks to become a field producer. Her father had recently died, and she worked both jobs to support herself in the expensive city of Washington. She also was acting as caregiver to her brother, an Army veteran, who suffered from multiple sclerosis and ulcerative colitis.

“I was thrust into being an adult,” Hairston explained. “I had to get creative really quick. I just had to really get up on my feet and pull myself up and do what I needed to do.”

Hairston would move on to work in public affairs at the National Archives, then the USDA, before landing at NIH where she organized the prestigious Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series.

“I was able to work with world-renowned researchers, scientists and authors on cutting-edge medicine, helping them organize talks in the nation’s capital about their work,” she said.

She was happy at NIH, but her brother’s illness was worsening.

“He was going through this thing with seizures, and his gait and depth perception were diminishing,” she explained. “He had also begun to lose weight very quickly.”

While her colleagues urged her to bring him to NIH, her brother was adamant about getting care at the VA. “It was all he wanted and all he knew. He believed in what the military promised him.”

Hairston wanted to better understand the system where her brother was going to be treated and so began looking for jobs at VA. She found the perfect position—an opening for an internal communications officer at the DCVAMC. She applied, landed the job and began what has become a decadelong personal mission to introduce the public to the VA.

“I came with the internal and heartfelt mission of getting my brother the care he needed,” she said. “But about three weeks after I got here, I gained about 75,000 brothers and sisters, because the mission became one with me. and I was one with it.” 

Working closely with the medical director and other facility leaders, she began to understand VA from the inside out. “I wasn’t just the sentence-writer or the brander. I began to understand being the advocate and wanting lawmakers and policymakers to move forward with legislation in favor of veterans.”

The biggest challenge for Hairston these days is to get across to people outside the agency just how much VA does, not just in the healthcare arena but in all areas of a veteran’s life. “We are caring for veterans wholly. I can’t walk into my healthcare provider and ask ‘Can you help me with getting a job?’ Or ‘I’m homeless, can you help me with a housing voucher?’ But veterans can here.”

“I’m very engaged in the way VA is expanding healthcare,” she added. “VA is taking steps to offering closer-to-home care in the community. We’re opening new CBOCs. We broke the rules on visitation hours and are inviting family members into the hospital 24 hours a day. We’ve partnered with family members and caregivers to have them be one with the healthcare a veteran is receiving.”

It’s this passion that keeps Hairston going during those times when the spotlight on VA is harsh.

“I have the opportunity to care for everyone who selflessly served the country and afforded me the freedom I enjoy each day,” she declared. “That’s what gets me through the tough times.”

In July of this year, Hairston was honored by AMVETS with its Special Award of the Year for her “dedication and extraordinary support of America’s veterans.”