Sitting in the oncology ward at Children’s National Medical Center on Jan. 19, retired Adm. Joe Sestak and his wife, Susan, awaited the doctors’ verdict about the condition of their 5-year-old daughter, Alexandra.
She had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor last summer and given three to nine months to live. The Sestaks lived for four months in the ward. They watched as their daughter survived three surgeries, and as she endured chemotherapy.
But that winter day, doctors told the Sestaks that Alexandra had done remarkably well and that, although the cancer could reemerge, she could resume living like a healthy girl.
Relieved and grateful, Sestak, who retired as a three-star admiral Jan. 1, after 31 years in the Navy, began thinking about what he wanted to do next.
“I went off to the Navy at 18. That’s all I ever wanted to do,” said Sestak, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. He considered a position at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a private organization that aids refugees.
Instead, he joined several military veterans, mostly Democrats, around the country who have decided to run for Congress this year. He’s running from his hometown of Springfield, Pa.
Democrats were thrilled with him. He had a doctorate from Harvard, commanded battleship groups during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, served on the National Security Council (NSC) and revamped the Navy’s strategy for winning wars in the post-Cold War era.
Sestak announced yesterday that he has raised $420,000 since February and hired prominent consultants to help defeat Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), the second ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
Under scrutiny from the national media because of his family’s ties to lobbyists, Weldon is running an aggressive campaign. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) flew in to campaign for him Saturday, and Weldon said he has raised $430,000 in the past two weeks.
Weldon and Sestak’s former rivals inside the Navy made Sestak’s job performance an issue. The incumbent and his allies seized on a report in the Navy Times last July that the new chief of naval operations removed Sestak because of a “poor command climate.”
William Arkin, a blogger on defense issues at washingtonpost.com, suggested the same thing. Two Navy sources told The Hill that the working environment in Deep Blue, the Navy’s in-house think tank, which Sestak led, was harsh and that Sestak might not have always set the priorities of his assignments as well as he could have.
But Sestak said that as the designated policy adviser and administrator to Vern Clark, the former chief of naval operations, it was his job to revamp the Navy, a process that necessarily ruffled feathers.
“Change is very challenging,” Sestak said. “It did not sit well with a lot of people. … I work hard, and I did not ask anyone to work harder than me. I intend to do the same thing as congressman.”
Weldon said that a group of admirals will oppose Sestak and that he has received scores of e-mails and letters about Sestak’s leadership from sailors and naval officers.
“He’s running because he has a personal ax to grind with the Navy leadership,” Weldon said. “When you treat people like dirt, that’s an issue.”
Weldon attacked Sestak’s decision to continue owning a home in Virginia while only renting in Pennsylvania and questioned why Sestak did not move back to Pennsylvania when he was working at the Pentagon. Weldon commutes from Pennsylvania each day.
Weldon also suggested Sestak should have sent his daughter to a hospital in Philadelphia or Delaware, rather than the Washington hospital. Sestak said that as soon as doctors give his daughter the all-clear, he’ll buy in Pennsylvania.
The image painted by Sestak’s former colleagues at the NSC is entirely positive.
“He’s an agent of change. Whenever you are like that, there will be people who disagree with you,” said John Dalton, a former secretary of the Navy under President Clinton.
Clinton NSC advisers Sandy Berger and Tony Lake, former Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) and former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta hosted a fundraiser for Sestak last week.
A former NSC official said, “He would do anything you asked when you asked for it. Decent is the word that comes to mind immediately. He was driven and hardworking, but there was no arrogance with that.”
Debbie Lafond, a nurse practitioner in the cancer ward at Children’s, said the Sestaks were like the other parents in the hospital. Initially scared and frightened, they grew to appreciate what other families and their children shared with them.
“I was an active-duty nurse in the Air Force, and I was very anxious [and] worried that this would be a family that wanted way above and beyond what I was able to give,” Lafond said, adding that her worries turned out to be unfounded. “When they’re here, they’re not Admiral anybody. … They’re in the same boat as everybody else.”
Sestak acknowledged that his journey through the medical system and healthcare bureaucracy changed him.
“I had been sympathetic but not empathetic,” Sestak told The Hill. “You live in an oncology ward for four months and your perspective changes.”
After the chemotherapy, Alexandra had lost her hair. While Sestak was running errands with her along one day this year, a young boy, whom Sestak said meant no harm, asked Alexandra, who was wearing a dress, if she was a boy or a girl.
Sestak held his breath — unsure about what to do.
“My daughter kept quiet for a moment” before telling the boy that she is a girl, Sestak said, adding that she pointed to the few strands of hair on her head and said to him, “‘Daddy, can’t he see my hair?’”