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Cover Story

Bob McFarland Departs the Department of Veterans Affairs Rejoins Veterans Advantage Board of Advisors

Special to Veterans Advantage

  Tom Lombardi
Bob McFarland (center), honored by the VA, accompanied by his wife Susan and Scott Higgins (right).

U.S. military and Veterans overwhelmingly support the timing of the world premiere of "United 93," the first 9/11 movie of its kind, according to Veterans Advantage, the leading nationwide membership benefit program U.S. Active Duty military, Veterans, National Guard and Reserve and their families.

Congress wants a better utilization of the dollar, and so do I," he said of the change he brought to the VA. "The kind of dollars that can be saved can then be returned in health care and benefits."

McFarland's work at the VA was a challenge unlike most that he faced during his 33 years in Corporate America. He refers to IT at the Department as a throwback to a 1980s-style "distributed computing model," which flung technology purchasing and management across disparate groups without coherent oversight. To move the model into the 21st century was an enormous task, as daunting culturally as it was technologically. And yet, as McFarland reflects, it was well worth the effort in increased efficiencies and productivity.

"[I'm] happy to have done it. Consolidating the budget, consolidating the infrastructure. I put together a blueprint and plan there. If they [the Department of Veterans Affairs] continue to execute, Veterans will be better served. And certainly the cost structure will be lessened and [technology] performance will be enhanced."

And from a personal point of view, McFarland had the satisfaction of "giving back." He had taken on the relentlessly high-powered job for a single reason: "It gave me a chance to repay a debt I've owed for more than 40 years," he said. Because in February 1963, the Army took on an 18-year-old, restless, footloose kid and taught him the basics of living a respectable, responsible life."

Helping the Disabled

Beyond dealing with the megabytes and mega cultural issues that came with being Chief of IT, McFarland pursued one initiative not part of his original plan. It provided him an opportunity to directly reward Vets and disabled Vets, many of them amputees.

It started with a series of morale-boosting visits by McFarland's IT team to Walter Read Army and Bethesda Naval hospitals, to spend time with the wounded in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like the veterans of Vietnam, these were young men and women, thrust back stateside with a new reality, but with a motivation and a desire to overcome their disabilities, qualities which led McFarland to see their potential as well as their pain.
"These are kids who are not ready to give up and are fully prepared to take on the next part of their lives," Bob says of the challenges they face. "It's the true spirit of America."

"We thought that many of them could be helpful in the IT world," he said, as several women on his team help launch was then code-named "VetIT," a program designed to provide on-the-job internship training, and career advice.

The bottom line: "We ended up hiring a whole bunch of them," and it became a full-scale initiative at the VA's Human Resources department. "I was really proud just to be part of it."

Tom Lombardi  
McFarland joined by Secretary Nicholson, and Congressman Steve Buyer, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs

Exceptional Service Award

At an awards ceremony at the Department of Veterans Affairs on May 18, 2006, Secretary Nicholson presented McFarland with the Exceptional Service Award. Congressman Steve Buyer, the Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs praised McFarland for his vision, dedication and effectiveness in developing and implementing a long-overdue IT reorganization at the VA. Speaking in the "Sonny" Montgomery Veterans Conference Center to a packed audience, Secretary Nicholson paid tribute to Bob through the words of Congressman Montgomery (a champion of Veterans who passed away this week): "Have passion for your path, have compassion for your colleagues and have the courage to pull the trigger on your integrity." He emphasized how McFarland had demonstrated these attributes and that his leadership had produced "significant change and progress." The Secretary's closing words: "you have left your mark. You have my highest respect and regard."

In his remarks accepting the Award, Bob first gave thanks to his "beautiful wife, Susan." Noting that the last 28 months had been "the most challenging of my life," he felt confident that IT at the VA was now "moving in the right direction." Serving in the military had transformed my life," he said and enabled him to succeed in College and later in business. "I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for my country and my fellow veterans."

Past & Future

McFarland was honored by the Department of Defense and designated a "HeroVet" by Veterans Advantage for his extraordinary work in restoring key computer operations in New York and Washington in the aftermath of 9/11.

Now that McFarland has concluded his work at the VA, he is rejoining Veterans Advantage as a member of its Board of Advisors, a position he held prior to his VA appointment. Other corporations have also approached him about board positions. And a return to industry is a possibility.

With so many accomplishments to look back on with pride, and future opportunities to look forward to with promise, Bob has earned himself some time to reflect:

"I haven't made up my mind. Going to do some fishing first."

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