The federal government gets a bad rap: it is constantly described as bloated and clunky, its workers as inefficient and ineffectual. Yet by and large, the men and women who make up the federal workforce rise above the criticism, put one foot in front of the other and do their job. Rarely is the work they do acknowledged, much less praised. But for the past 16 years, the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, or Sammies, have sought to change that by honoring federal employees who have an outsize impact on the country and the world. Below, the 2017 Sammie winners, chosen by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.
1. Flora M. Jordan
MARINE CORPS SYSTEMS COMMAND
Body armor keeps American troops alive, but it’s also a burden, weighing as much as 150 lb. After interviewing over 600 Marines and spending a week in the desert wearing their gear, Jordan and her team of engineers developed armor vests that are as much as 45% lighter than the current gear. The improved armor is being tested and could be purchased next year, alleviating Marines’ stress and facilitating their mobility.
2. Rory A. Cooper
DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
The technologies Cooper and his team invented–they are credited with 25 patents–have made wheelchairs light and comfortable and motorized chairs easier to operate. They’ve added robotic arms to chairs so users can grasp objects and created tech that helps transfer people from a wheelchair to a bed. These advancements have meant that veterans can go back to work, attend school, participate in sports and, in some cases, return to active duty.
3. Timothy Camus
TREASURY INSPECTOR GENERAL FOR TAX ADMINISTRATION
It was a gutsy con: Americans were reporting that they’d received threatening phone calls “from the Internal Revenue Service” saying they had to pay back taxes or face arrest. Only it wasn’t the IRS calling; it was a shadowy group making millions of fake calls that eventually took more than $50 million from elderly and immigrant taxpayers. Camus led a multiagency, public- and private-sector effort not only to stop the scammers but also to inform the public about the scheme. Some 61 people have been brought to justice both in the U.S. and in India, where the fraud originated.
4. Alex Mahoney
U.S. AGENCY FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Mahoney and USAID’s Middle East Crisis Humanitarian Response Team have been on the front lines delivering aid to those whose lives have been upended by the Syrian civil war. Since 2011, more than 360 people have served on the team–either on the ground in the Middle East or in its headquarters in D.C. Through their work and with the help of the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations, some 7 million people displaced by the Syrian civil war and ISIS fighters in Iraq have received assistance, from food and clean water to shelter and health care.
5. Courtney Lias and Stayce Beck
FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION
Lias and Beck fast-tracked the regulatory approval for an artificial pancreas, an innovative medical device that has improved the lives of those living with Type 1 diabetes. The device automates the delivery of insulin to those living with diabetes and eases the burden of having to constantly monitor their blood-sugar levels. By streamlining the FDA review process, the two were able to help industry players see the federal government as an ally and not an enemy.
6. Dr. Tedd V. Ellerbrock
CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION
Today more than 11 million people around the world have access to HIV/AIDS treatment, thanks in large part to Ellerbrock. When TIME spoke with him, he was in Zambia, just hours from presenting a plan to reach “epidemic control”–the point at which new HIV infections have fallen below the total number of HIV-related deaths–by December 2020. The changes he’s seen in HIV/AIDS treatment have been nothing short of amazing, but he says letting up could mean future generations will be dealing with the same issues that he and other folks have worked to combat.
7. Phillip A. Brooks and Byron Bunker
ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
Joshua H. Van Eaton
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE
These three men led an investigation into the German automaker Volkswagen Group. Their work resulted in a groundbreaking penalty for the manufacturer, which had rigged emissions tests in order to sell vehicles that would have violated federal standards. The company ultimately agreed to fork over some $20 billion to settle civil and criminal lawsuits.
This appears in the October 02, 2017 issue of TIME.