New VA director eager to explore the region, advocate for veterans
An avid biker, hiker and nature explorer, Barbara Oemcke is delighted her 26-year career as a Veteran Affairs clinician and executive landed her where she can pursue her personal and professional passions.
“I’m so excited to be here. This is my first director position, and this was my first choice in places to come,” said Oemcke of her promotion on March 3 to medical director of the Northern Arizona Veteran Affairs Health Care System (NAVAHCS). “I’m not an urban person. I like the amenities of a city, but I just love this kind of setting.”
The local VA serves some 26,000 veterans across more than 60,000 square miles.
Oemcke and her husband, Mike, a Vietnam veteran and retired VA recreation therapist, have bought a home in Prescott Valley. The couple together have five adult children and six grandchildren.
Prior to her arrival, Oemcke served for four years as the associate and interim medical director of the VA’s Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City, Oregon. Oemcke started her career with the VA in 1991 as a registered dietitian in Minnesota.
Oemcke replaces Donna Jacobs, who retired just under two years ago. In the interim period, the director post was filled by the VA’s Chief of Staff M. Keith Piatt.
“I am delighted to welcome (Oemcke) as our new director. Her range of experience in several VA facilities across the country leave her well prepared to lead NAVAHCS into this new and exciting era for VA,” Piatt said.
In her first few weeks on the job, Oemcke has kept a full schedule of meetings not only on the main campus in Prescott but touring the various out-patient clinics that spread between Lake Havasau City and the Indian reservations beyond the Flagstaff area.
She said she has enjoyed hearing from employees, veterans and others about the hidden secrets of her new locale. And she welcomes the chance to become more familiar with this VA system and how it can continue to be a strong, valued health partner in the community.
“We value the goodwill of the community, and want to work to continue that good will,” said Oemcke, who will be a guest of the local Rotary Club next week.
She said she is not afraid to accept constructive criticism, and is a believer in open communication that leads to progress and growth.
“We need to recognize problems and then do the best we can to solve them,” Oemcke said.
An affable, accessible woman who grew up in a military family on dairy farm in North Dakota, Oemcke said she was taught at an early age the importance of a “firm handshake” and to always “keep your word.”
From her clinical experience, Oemcke said she developed a “passion” for assuring veterans are treated to health care that enhances their everyday lives, and to always be looking for ways to make a difference.
“How can we use our resources so that we are really connected to our mission?” Oemcke queried.
In the evolution of her career, Oemcke said she came to recognize the importance of strong leadership able to advocate for veterans as well as the employees hired to address their needs and treat them.
In her first meetings with staff, Oemcke said she is impressed to see that these men and women “have a real heart for veteran care.”
A personal goal for Oemcke is to assure that the VA is an “employer of choice,” a happy place to visit and work because she is a firm believer that “happy employees take good care of our veterans.”
“Our responsibility is to help veterans navigate the system … we need to treat veterans the way we want our own families to be treated.”
“We are pleased to welcome (Oemcke) to Arizona. As we begin implementation of the Military/Veteran Community Network in Northern Arizona, we look forward to working together to positively impact the lives of veterans and their families throughout the region,” said Thomas Winkel, director of the Arizona Coalition for Military Families.