When Army combat nurse Jo Ann K. Webb returned from the Vietnam War and started looking for a job, her status as a female Veteran shocked would-be employers. But her limited and well-connected professional experience on Veteran-health policy and politics soon opened doors.
In 1989, President George H. W. Bush appointed the then-41-year-old as Director of the National Cemetery System (NCS, later NCA). She became the highest-ranking woman at the Veterans Administration (later, the Department of Veterans Affairs) and the first one to head the NCS.
As a charter member of the VA Advisory Committee on Women Veterans in the 1980s, Webb recalled how the group sought to figure out how to make VA more accessible and friendly to women. In an oral interview she gave this month to NCA historians, she was animated, positive, sometimes emotional, and peppered her recollections with strong language. A valued mentor once told her, “Don’t take any s–t!”
VA wanted a woman in that position, Webb said, and that is how she became the “token woman” at NCS. The mother of three, who was younger than most of her subordinates, takes pride in her accomplishments: She oversaw 1,200 employees, 113 national cemeteries, and three regional offices.
Rare for the time, Webb was also a proponent for environmental stewardship; she promoted xeriscaping at national cemeteries in the arid southwest; supported using drought-resistant grasses; and favored flat markers to uprights in order to reduce the quantity of marble used to mark graves–because they are less prone to shifting. After learning about the challenge of limited burial space in Japan, she directed the construction of columbaria niches against the stone walls lining the road through California’s picturesque Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery.
But that’s not all. During her tenure, Webb fully embraced grave liners to protect interments, reduce maintenance, and ensure the grounds remain level. She mandated digitizing paper burial records and digital recordkeeping. And against the objection of regional directors, she had telephone-answering machines placed at cemeteries as a courtesy to those who called outside of working hours.
An amazing experience
Then-VA Deputy Secretary Anthony Principi directed her to take a new position as Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning two years later. “I loved the [NCS] job and was devastated when I was told I had to move on,” she said. “It was an amazing experience [and] probably the best job I had in government.”
Webb didn’t recall that in 1989 her lofty appointment was considered a big deal. But it was. And the legacy of her achievements live on to this day.
The NCA History Program
This content is based on an oral history interview Ms. Webb made with National Cemetery Administration (NCA) historians. The NCA History Program has conducted more than two dozen oral histories of NCA senior leaders and long-term employees to preserve their personal perspectives on working at VA. The second and only other woman to lead NCA was Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Ms. Robin Higgins (2001-2002).
Sara Amy Leach is a senior historian at the National Cemetery Administration