Rep. Don Beyer was skeptical when his new chief of staff, Tanya Bradsher, urged him to call over to the Pentagon in summer 2019 to follow up on a constituent’s request for military records that had been ignored for months.
“We had been making no progress, and the rest of the staff didn’t think we’d get anywhere,” the Virginia Democrat remembers. “But I got on the phone, and I told them that Tanya said I should try again. And the immediate response was, ‘Oh, Tanya needs that? We’ll get it done right away.’ I had to drop her name to get attention.”
Colleagues call Bradsher, the current chief of staff for the Department of Veterans Affairs, a behind-the-scenes star in Washington, D.C., someone known to get things done quickly without leaving bruised egos in her wake.
Now the Army veteran is set to step into a more visible — and historic — role. Last month, President Joe Biden nominated her to serve as the next deputy secretary for VA, the second highest post at the department with the second-largest budget in all of federal government. If confirmed, she’ll be the first woman to hold the role full time; three others have served as acting deputies. Bradsher, who is Black, would also be the first woman of color to ever hold the post.
And if VA Secretary Denis McDonough opts to step down from his leadership post before the 2024 presidential election, Bradsher would step in as the first woman ever to oversee the country’s veterans support programs, a moment nearly 100 years in the making.
“I do not believe that deputy secretary will be her last leadership stop,” said former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who picked Bradsher as his Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs in 2014. “It’s no surprise to me to see her being chosen for these roles.”
But before those future responsibilities, Bradsher still has to survive the Senate confirmation process, which has become a contentious mess in recent months. She is scheduled to testify about her new role and vision for VA before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on May 31.
How long a final vote on her confirmation to the leadership post will take is likely dependent more on political infighting on Capitol Hill and less on her own long list of credentials.
Bradsher, 53, is a fourth-generation soldier, serving in the Army for 20 years before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. A native of Virginia, she enlisted in 1993 after graduating with an American History degree from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and completed Officer Candidate School a year later.
Her service included four years in South Korea and a year-long deployment to Iraq in 2008 and 2009, working as a public affairs officer with the 4th Infantry Division.
Colleagues called her a fast riser, someone who seemed to be at the center of big decisions and important moments. After her Iraq deployment, she stepped into senior press management roles at the Pentagon, including working as the main media point of contact for questions on the controversial Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility. She also first met Johnson there, who at the time was the military’s top lawyer.
“She was one of the most disciplined people I’ve ever met,” he said. “In meetings, she was always candid and forthright. She could cut right to the important points, but she was also always well-liked.”
Those attributes were what led him to pull her over to the Homeland Security department in 2014, plucking her from her role as the White House lead for Veterans, Wounded Warrior and Military Family Outreach. By then, she had retired from the military and already established herself as a respected asset in the administration.
“When we had White House events with veterans and military families, you could always see the people who hung around the big names and who spent time with the families,” said Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Barack Obama throughout his eight years in office. “Tanya was the one who always had her arm around one of those visitors, always making sure everyone felt welcome.”
Bradsher and her family — she has three children with her husband, retired Col. John Bradsher — have been fixtures at those White House military and veterans events over the years. Jarrett said Bradsher’s “complete sense of duty” in her efforts to help her fellow veterans was striking, even among other officials focused on the issues.
Beyer said when he hired Brasher as chief of staff, he was thrilled to have someone as well-respected and well-connected as her. But he also knew it wouldn’t last.
“The Biden administration stole her for their transition team in 2020, which we all saw coming,” he said. “I was heartbroken, because she was a terrific chief of staff. But I knew she’d be sought after by a lot of folks.”
Insiders said McDonough hand-picked her to serve as VA chief of staff when he took over the department, a role with significant expectations given McDonough’s own background as White House chief of staff for Obama’s second term. Veterans advocates said they have a good relationship with her, a reality that has not always been the case with VA leaders in recent years.
“She’s serving the country as much now as she was when in uniform,” said Allison Jaslow, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “She really is a public servant at heart.”
Veterans Affairs officials did not make Bradsher available for comment for this story. Federal agencies rarely allow nominees to conduct interviews ahead of their confirmation hearing, out of concerns that it could make it appear as if the administration takes her confirmation for granted.
Bradsher was among 149 Black Americans who served in the Obama administration to sign onto a 2019 letter decrying racially charged comments made by former President Donald Trump, and promising to fight for “equitable access to health care, housing, quality schools and employment.”
As deputy secretary, she’ll be charged in part with looking at racial disparities within VA’s operations and benefits delivery, the latter of which is already the subject of an ongoing lawsuit. The issue could be an attack point for some Republicans still loyal to the former president, many of whom have publicly attacked the administration for focusing too much on diversity training.
That said, her confirmation hearing is not expected to be particularly contentious. Bradsher is a known figure among lawmakers on the congressional Veterans Affairs committees, and staffers said they do not anticipate any issues with her background or policies.
But the confirmation process could also be complicated by VA itself, and some of the responsibilities of the deputy secretary post. Foremost among them is the ongoing chaos surrounding the department’s electronic records system overhaul, a project specifically overseen by VA’s second-ranking leader.
The 10-year, $16 billion project has been beset by delays and failures over the last two years, and was brought to a total halt by McDonough last month. House Republicans have begun openly discussing scrapping the project altogether, calling it a waste of money and a sign of mismanagement by VA leaders.
Donald Remy, the former VA deputy secretary who Bradsher would replace, said that Bradsher is well-versed in the problems and potential fixes given her work as chief of staff. He said her existing relationships with lawmakers might also help smooth some of the transition and give her extra time to approach the problem with new eyes.
“She is well-prepared for all the issues that this post will face, including the budget, the president’s unity agenda and interactions with agencies across all of government,” he said. “I think she’s an invaluable asset in that role.”
And even if lawmakers back her personally, complaints about VA policies in general can still derail the confirmation process.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has held up more than 200 Defense Department confirmations and senior officer promotions for months over his objections to the military’s policies on access to abortion services for service members. He has voiced similar complaints about abortion procedures being conducted at VA health care facilities, although he has not yet threatened a similar blanket hold on department nominees.
The confirmation of VA Under Secretary for Benefits Josh Jacobs was held up for two months earlier this year when Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, raised objections about VA’s treatment of whistleblowers and lack of response to congressional inquiries.
During a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on May 17, Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., encouraged members to meet with Bradsher as soon as possible to “find out what she’s made of” in a bid to stave off any similar delays in her confirmation process. But it’s unclear if that will matter for any Biden nominee in an increasingly divided chamber.
A historic symbol
But blocking Bradsher without clear reasons risks backlash too, especially among veterans groups that have been pushing for more representation for women in the department’s highest ranks.
“It’s huge to be able to see someone at this high of a leadership level who looks like you,” said Jaslow, herself a former Army captain who served in Iraq. “Having a woman in that role will go a long way in how the whole country sees veterans.”
Women make up about 11% of the country’s veterans population today, but are projected to be closer to 20% by 2040. VA leaders have consistently labeled them as one of the fastest-growing groups within the community and ramped up outreach efforts in recent years to combat the idea of VA support services being exclusively for men.
That includes the decision earlier this year to change the department’s motto to gender-neutral language, a move that Bradsher was involved with behind the scenes.
“The hard part, especially for a woman veteran, is realizing you’re stepping into a role not just as yourself, but representing a whole group of people,” Jaslow said. “But I think she is up for that, and going to make women veterans — and all veterans — proud.”
And if Bradsher steps in as acting secretary, becoming the first woman ever to lead the depatry rtment, that platform will be even larger. McDonough has not publicly indicated he is eyeing an exit from the top VA leadership job. But of the last six VA secretaries, only one (Eric Shinseki) has stayed in office more more than three years. McDonough would reach that mark next February.
Friends of Bradsher, speaking anonymously out of concerns surrounding the confirmation process, said she is not actively looking for that spotlight, but would not shy away from it either. But they also said she’s fully focused on stepping into the challenging deputy secretary post, and finding ways to succeed there.
Remy said he thinks Bradsher’s most valuable experience for the new role will be Bradsher’s own background as a veteran and military family member. “She knows the issues to keep her eyes on, because she has lived them.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.