Meet Veterans Affairs’ highest-ranking woman, Tanya Bradsher

Bradsher discusses her personal journey in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and priority to better serve Black and minority veterans.

Tanya Bradsher is on a mission to help bring change to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 

As deputy secretary, a role she’s held for less than two months, Bradsher is the federal agency’s highest-ranking woman and the first woman of any race to serve as second in command of the department providing critical services to U.S. military veterans.

The 20-year Army veteran and retired lieutenant colonel, who served as the VA’s chief of staff before taking on her historic role, tells theGrio that her mission is to ensure that the agency reaches as many Black and minority veterans as possible.

Tanya J. Bradsher, deputy secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs, chats with fellow women veterans about their VA experience. Bradsher, a fourth-generation Army veteran, believes there is no better mission in the federal government than caring for our nation’s veterans. (Photo credit for this image goes to Eugene Russell, Department of Veterans Affairs photographer)(Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)

“I’m hopeful to use this platform to reach out to more of our minority veterans, or untethered veterans, or women veterans,” Bradsher said, “and hoping that by seeing me as deputy secretary, folks who maybe have tried the VA once and weren’t satisfied, look at an opportunity to come back and try again.”

The VA, which provides health care and non-health care benefits, including disability compensation, educational assistance and home loans, has been accused of decades-long discrimination against Black veterans. Earlier this year, the department released data revealing that Black veterans were denied benefits more often than white veterans. 

Bradsher said the VA established an equity task force to analyze which benefits were disproportionately denied to Black veterans and to right those wrongs. She urged those denied to reapply and encouraged veterans to take advantage of expanded benefits provided through the Honoring Our PACT Act, which President Joe Biden assigned into law last year.

“If you were previously denied, please resubmit, and let’s take a look,” she said. “Give us an opportunity because we are here for you.” 

For Bradsher, ensuring that Black, minority, and women veterans are taken care of is personal. Not only because of her personal identity as a Black woman but because military service is in her bloodline. She’s a fourth-generation army soldier and is married to a 30-year veteran. 

U.S. Army public affairs officer, Maj. Tanya Bradsher from 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, listens as plant supervisor, Qusay Shakar, responds to questions posed by the media at the Hamden Sewer Treatment Plant in Basra, Iraq on June 2. (Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)

Despite her two decades of service that led to prominent roles within the White House National Security Council and Office of the Secretary of Defense, Bradsher admits that it took her some time to see what Biden, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough and others saw in her.

“I’ve been incredibly fortunate throughout my career that people saw more in me than I could see in myself,” said Bradsher, who described her U.S. Senate confirmation process as “challenging.”

“It can be really intimidating, especially when you’re breaking those barriers,” she shared. “A Black woman had never served as acting before in this role, let alone a woman ever being confirmed in this role.”

Just a couple of months into serving as deputy secretary, Bradsher said she is “learning” and leaning into the confidence that others have in her to do the job.

Bradsher also has the support of her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., the same historically Black sorority that touts Vice President Kamala Harris among its membership.

“I was so privileged when our international president came to my swearing-in [ceremony],” she recalled. “Having prominent members of our historically Black fraternities and sororities hold key leadership roles in government shows the strength of our sororities and fraternities.”

Tanya J. Bradsher, deputy secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs. (Photo: Eugene Russell, Department of Veterans Affairs photographer)

Bradsher said, whether she was serving in Korea or North Carolina, “I always knew that I had my fraternity brothers and my sorority sisters.”

Camaraderie and support is something Bradsher said she appreciated most while working inside the Pentagon when it was attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, also known as 9/11.

“I was pregnant with our second daughter,” she recalled. “The minute you walked out the double doors, you saw the huge black plume of smoke. And that’s when we realized … that we were hit.”

Bradsher’s husband also worked inside the Pentagon. The two were eventually able to meet up after the Department of Defense headquarters was evacuated upon being hit by a hijacker plane, killing 184 people. 

“Before me was an Air Force general, and we heard two jets fly by, and he said, ‘those are our guys. We have command of the sky,’” she recollected. “It was the first time for me that I really was grateful for the United States Air Force in a way that I just didn’t appreciate before.”

The bravery of the U.S. military, particularly Black service members, is why Bradsher says it’s important to honor and support Black veterans. 

Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) students from John C. Fremont High School in South Central los Angeles listen to a panel of retired, Black, high-ranking military veterans participated in a panel discussing their military service, their career challenges and work relating to the renaming commission, which seeks to assess the plausibility of renaming confederate monuments, before exploring the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection exhibit, at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, CA, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“Black Americans have contributed so much in the military, and we serve at a disproportionate number,” said the deputy secretary, who noted that racial progress in America can be traced back to its military.

“Desegregation started in the military, and it was out of necessity,” Bradsher said. “A lot of the advancements that we have made as a country actually started in the military.”

She continued, “The military has formed friendships and relationships throughout the country that have allowed us as a country to come together.”

Whether for Veterans Day or beyond, Bradsher encouraged citizens to honor Black veterans by giving them space to tell their stories. 

“Let’s not just let [their stories] go with them … see what they’ll share with you,” she said. “I think you’ll be blown away at the amazing service our Black veterans have done, and where they have been, and what they have seen.”

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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