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(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

SAN ANTONIO - Talking with Vanessa Musgrave is like spreading out a map on the table. As the conversation unfolds, you see connections that you weren’t sure were there. The interconnections of one thing to another, and then to another, is revealed.

Take for example the environmental impacts of paper towels versus air-blown hand dryers. Maybe paper is better for the environment, since it is from a renewable resource and blowers are powered largely by fossil fuels? But Musgrave walks that logic back a little. She discusses how chemicals and massive amounts of water are used to make paper towels which, when calculated, has an enormous environmental impact, greater than that from hand dryers. In short, she explains the lifecycle of these issues, and creates a clear picture. Her mind works that way, always has.

“The environment is a holistic thing. You can’t modify one thing without affecting another. You have to think in systems, more broadly, she said of her approach to her long, successful career in environmental science. “It’s a lifecycle. There are three elements to understanding these lifecycles – chemical, physical and biological. In the past we haven’t done as much with the biological. That’s changing, and we’ve made real progress, but we have a way to go.”

Musgrave, who retired from the U.S. Army Environmental Command in July after 34 years of federal government environmental and energy service, demonstrated this broad approach to problem solving from the beginning. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, along with a degree in secondary education and, for good measure, added a religion-philosophy degree. She credits her approach to systems thinking to her biology training, her ability to communicate and provide valuable training to her education degree, and her strong desire for public service and to make a difference in people’s lives to her religious studies.

“There’s so much more we need to do, but we have made real progress,” she said of the nation’s environmental stewardship, in which she has played a number of roles. “If you think about it, damage to the environment and public health occurred over decades, and it takes time to understand and fix it. The Environmental Protection Agency has only been around 50 years. We have a lot more to do, but it just doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of money, willpower and time.”

From serving in public health, energy and environmental roles with the State of Illinois, to working to establish the nation’s first Doppler weather radar network, to working with the EPA and teaching at Johns Hopkins University and building and delivering countless training courses, and managing one of the largest enhanced use leases at a military installation, Vanessa has led a varied and impactful career.

While she is proud of the work she has done in helping to understand and clean-up complex systems and address significant environmental concerns, Musgrave is quick to point to smaller-scale stories that had direct impacts on people as her proudest accomplishments.

She cites an example where a small rural community with a horse farm and a couple of families was having significant health issues, and medical providers were at a loss to explain. Musgrave brought this to the attention of senior leaders and helped coordinate a comprehensive look at the whole environment, “everything from waters, soil and receptors, to horse feed and hay, air samples, and medical tests and records. This work uncovered a nearby incineration plant that had one licensed smokestack and another unlicensed. When the licensed one broke, the company used the short stack unlicensed one, adding much uncontrolled hazardous pollution to the community’s air and environment.

“We worked with the Illinois Attorney General to identify what we needed to get them in compliance or shut down. We took pictures, monitored the health of the residents, showed how smoke completely covered the ground surface, and the families there had high lead levels in their blood, along with other compounds,” she said. “There was a 32-year old man, a plumber, who the Mayo Clinic could not identify a health solution to his issues which had come on over the last three years. Once we got things shut down, he recovered and went back to work. The new horses at the farm remained healthy. “That’s what I am talking about when I say systems, it takes a team of various specialties: biological, physical and chemical,” she said. “You can’t just say I’ve contained this hazardous waste and move on. It takes a whole system to completely solve the problem.”

Musgrave, who gained expertise in dioxin and its impact on health, also played a direct role in helping her cousin, a Vietnam Veteran, get his benefits upgraded because of the health impacts he had from exposure to Agent Orange.

“My cousin was having the symptoms (related to dioxin exposure) but nobody was telling him that,” she said. “So, I put some information together to connect his health issues to dioxin, which led to an increase in his benefits and better health care. Unfortunately, he didn’t live very much longer. But he had a young family, and that helped them all. Over the years I have also helped other veterans in this way.”

Musgrave, who has lived in San Antonio for the past 21 years, is hoping to start travelling more once pandemic issues subside. During her career, which has taken her from Illinois to Southern California and from Cape Cod to Washington D.C., Musgrave has made many friends.

“I’ve got friends and family all over the country, and I’m planning on visiting them and seeing natural and cultural things I’ve missed. Once COVID is under control, I’d like to make more day trips, as well as take a trip to New Zealand and Japan and revisit Europe and the Caribbean.” she said, adding “And I’m going to see the Northern Lights and Southern Cross.”

She also plans to return to volunteer work at local military and Veterans Administration hospitals, something she did in high school. She’s in the middle of remodeling her house. And it is not surprising that her other interests cover a lot of creative ground.

“I have some creative writing I want to do. I like to make jewelry and greeting cards and crochet,” she said. “I used to design clothes and make them so I’m planning on doing that again, along with participating in cultural events that come my way.”