Tiffany Koehler loved her job working with women veterans at the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs. As a Black woman who served in the Army, bringing women together across the state was a mission she was driven to pursue.
She started as a limited term employee working full-time hours in 2018. Her contract was renewed three times before she was hired as a full-time employee. The role initially provided for her to work remotely, allowing her to travel for events, meetings and attend doctor’s appointments. She had had cancer; it was in remission but required close monitoring.
When Gov. Tony Evers took office in 2019 and the agency’s leadership changed, so did Koehler’s supervisor. She required Koehler to work in Madison and, Koehler alleges, did not make a reasonable accommodation for her ongoing medical appointments.
She says she was told she could not work from WDVA’s Milwaukee office and was criticized for small things, like the font she chose for an event flier. The work she did was minimized, she said.
“I was told by the HR representative that they did not know what I was doing when I worked in Milwaukee,” said Koehler, noting that her work cell phone records and email receipts were available to them. She said she met with her supervisor weekly and provided a written report of the prior week’s activities.
“If you know anything about race relations, the code for ‘we don't trust Black people,’ is ‘we have to keep our eyes on you,’” she said. “I take my work seriously, and their accusation caused me much stress.”
Her supervisor never provided a budget for events Koehler planned, removed her overtime pay and condemned her work to other employees, she said.
Koehler was fired in April 2020 with no job counseling and without cause, she said, and is pursuing a discrimination complaint against the state.
“WDVA became the most toxic and hostile place I had ever worked,” she said. “As a state agency, I expected a level of fairness and concern for their staff.”
Koehler is one of four former veteran employees of color who spoke to the Cap Times and say despite rhetoric in state government emphasizing diversity initiatives, they felt marginalized, micromanaged and condescended to while working at the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs. Willie Gregory, a Black man, and Jacqueline Jordan, a Black woman, left the agency after they said they encountered racism there. Shaun Stoeger, a Native American man who worked as a tribal liaison for the agency, said he left after repeatedly being denied a raise despite stellar work performance.
Their experiences, while distinct and not necessarily reflective of all people of color at the agency, highlight challenges in moving beyond policies on equity and inclusion to action.
The Department of Veterans Affairs denies the employees’ allegations and said it cannot comment on specific personnel issues. Spokeswoman Carla Vigue said the agency prioritizes equity, has strengthened partnerships with veteran nonprofits in the state and created a workplace atmosphere where employees feel heard and recognized for their accomplishments.
“All allegations of discrimination are thoroughly investigated by an unbiased third party. We absolutely do not stand for nor do we engage in discriminatory behavior,” she said in an email.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Mary Kolar said the department values all people and that employees are always free to reach out to her with concerns. Accountability guides her personnel decisions, she said.
“I want to emphasize that feedback is always appreciated, so if there are employees that feel that they can't express themselves, please...who else are we not hearing from? We need to find out.”
To better foster a collaborative work environment, the agency created an employee-led Cultivating Culture Committee. The committee launched a series of initiatives including monthly trainings on equity and inclusion. It has also developed a mentorship program for new employees.
Before she worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Koehler served in the Legislature as an aide to the late Assembly Rep. Bob Gannon. She later ran unsuccessfully for his seat in the 58th Assembly District representing central Washington County. Since then, she has served on several community boards and veterans organizations.
Her history with cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, was known by the Department of Veterans Affairs when she was hired by former Secretary Dan Zimmerman. As the women's veterans coordinator, she was allowed to work remotely and was frequently on the road meeting with veterans groups.
When Evers was elected and replaced Zimmerman with Kolar, the department’s approach to outreach changed. Koehler was given a new supervisor and was asked to report to Madison each day.
According to a 2019 note from her doctor reviewed by the Cap Times, Koehler's physician asked the department to allow her to work closer to her home “due to the side effects she has from previous chemotherapy treatments such as low stamina, fatigue, decreased mental cognition and weakness.” When the pandemic hit in 2020, her physician, Dr. Abhey Jella of Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee, again made the request, noting that Koehler was immunocompromised and at a higher risk for COVID-19 infection because of her treatment.
Department officials disregarded the note, still requiring Koehler to work in Madison daily, according to performance reviews and an investigation conducted by the state Department of Workforce Development, which reviews equal rights and discrimination claims. On one occasion when Koehler told an HR representative she was tired, the woman suggested she should not be working at all, according to the DWD investigation. Koehler found the remark discriminatory. The HR official said she was trying to offer a solution.
After a one-year probationary period in which the Department of Veterans Affairs said Koehler had several subpar performance reviews, according to records of them, including one where she was tardy 13 times, they dismissed her. The veterans agency also said she “lacked the skills” needed for the job and could not manage projects well. She was terminated six months after filing a complaint against the agency with the Department of Workforce Development.
Last month, a DWD investigator found that there was “no probable cause” that the Department of Veterans Affairs discriminated against Koehler in any way. Investigators found that the timeline of Koehler’s firing did not indicate retaliation for filing a discrimination complaint. However, DWD found probable cause that WDVA may have violated the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act by refusing to accommodate her disability.
Koehler is appealing the determination and said the investigation leaves out key details and context of her employment, including that she informed her supervisor of her medical condition and its effects. The case will now go before a state administrative law judge.
“I’m not disgruntled. I am disappointed. I am exhausted from the unequal treatment. You can ask anybody out there who knows me. I have a great reputation and I still do,” Koehler said. “When you’re not used to working with Black people, people want to say we’re angry, we’re hard to get along with, we’re rude. There are all these implicit biases that are attached to us automatically.
“You have these frontline supervisors who have so much power who are not culturally competent and that impacts employees and the workplace culture.”
In a written response to a May 2019 negative performance review, Koehler said it was “biased and critical.” She said she did the work and was not given fair credit.
“This evaluation does not provide an accurate account of the dedication, professional relationships, and nature of my work,” she wrote.
Koehler said in an interview she provided work examples to the supervisor and kept a daily journal “because I knew I would have to prove myself over and over again.”
Those who worked with Koehler during the previous administration say she excelled.
“Tiffany was stellar in her job,” said former Secretary Zimmerman. “She went above and beyond. She is one for ideas. She really took the women veterans situation that really had been languishing for multiple years and she just ran with it.
“I think what's indicative of that was that her (limited term employment) was extended and she was hired permanently.”
Koehler was a part of an outreach team Zimmerman created to reach underrepresented veteran communities who needed help but were not on the agency’s radar. Much of the agency’s operations is concentrated on its three veterans nursing homes, but he wanted to push programming beyond that.
“What I ultimately found was we did a pretty good job of taking care of the folks who called us for help but we also found that most veterans were not calling for help. They were hostile to the agency or didn’t know who to call,” Zimmerman said. “So my major focus was on finding veterans and going to veterans where they live.”
Steve Janke, one of Koehler’s colleagues on the outreach team, who also traveled nationwide recruiting veterans to live in Wisconsin through a Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation initiative, praised her work and said the agency’s changes have been felt in the veteran community.
Janke, who now runs his own company, Mission Wisconsin, connecting veterans with Wisconsin companies and helping them relocate to the state following active duty, said positions like Koehler’s were critical because of her connection to the Milwaukee veterans community, the largest in the state, with the most veterans of color.
Despite having a claims office there, the agency struggled to reach vets, Janke and others said.
“For the longest time it was always the unwritten rule that you just don't go into Milwaukee County. Outreach... in that area was something we never did until the department hired Tiffany Koehler in order to...focus on building relationships,” said Janke.
When Kolar took office, she continued to develop the agency’s outreach program, including expanding the Veterans Outreach and Recovery Program, or VORP, which connects veterans statewide with mental health, jobs, benefits and education help.
The department has prioritized outreach through this effort, especially to communities of color, Kolar said.
“VORP is critical because even if a vet doesn’t qualify for state services, they can connect them to nonprofits who can help,” she said. “It is so successful in literally saving people’s lives.”
But two former VORP employees said they encountered racism there and felt leaders were unwilling to understand the dynamics of the veteran population in Milwaukee, limiting its effectiveness.
Willie Gregory started as a regional coordinator for the program in October 2019, working with homeless and indigent veterans. Gregory, who is a Black and a disabled veteran, had more than a decade of experience assisting veterans in three states.
“I was brought in because they had challenges covering Milwaukee and Waukesha because of the large diverse populations that were in these counties,” Gregory said. “WDVA is primarily white….They wanted someone with experience in veteran services and programs that could connect to a diverse culture and I fit the bill.”
He said the program had been in place for several years when he started, “and they had not been able to achieve success connecting people to those counties.”
Criticism of the department’s outreach efforts was not well received, he said.
“I found them to be very naïve about what is affecting the veterans community, specifically the diverse veteran community,” he said. “They were adamant about things being done their way. When things were not done their way to the letter they found a way to reprimand a diverse person such as myself and Tiffany. (When) our colleagues would do something of the exact same nature, and they were Caucasian, nothing happened except maybe a verbal reprimand.”
The veteran culture and community, especially in the Milwaukee area, is distinct, Gregory said. Engaging them well is often best done by people who listen and who are veterans themselves, he said.
“We had a bunch of people who hadn’t worn the uniform managing this program on the front lines and when you said, ‘Hey, this is what's going on, this is what we need here, what you're doing wasn’t working,’ they didn’t want to hear that,” he said.
Gregory catalogued several instances of what he said was disparate treatment of him by supervisors, a copy of which he shared with the Cap Times. One incident occurred when he was on a conference call with VORP program staff to discuss difficult cases. Gregory shared an experience he was having with a case. A white colleague on the call told him: “‘I know you may not understand this because of your (disability),’” he said. “What do you mean, my (disability?) How do you know I have (a disability?) This is on a conference call in front of everyone.”
Gregory said he was sometimes the only Black person in the room and felt called on to defend himself. He felt his feedback and lived experience as a Black person and a veteran trying to help the department better serve others was met with condescension.
“They treat you as if everything they do for you, they’re doing to help rescue you or save you like you're some victim,” he said. “Nobody wants to be talked down to. They don’t get that.”
He said he tried to discuss his concerns with his supervisor on numerous occasions but that his thoughts were largely dismissed. He filed a complaint in January with the department’s human resources department but ultimately decided to leave in March.
Jacqueline Jordan, a Black woman with decades of experience in the social services field, held Gregory’s role before him and said she also encountered racism.
She was hired in 2018 as a limited term coordinator for the VORP program, housed at VetsNet, a Milwaukee nonprofit that connects veterans with social services. From the beginning, she said she received no training about how to specifically work with veterans and little clarity about what benefits and services were available. When she repeatedly asked for more resources, little was provided, she said.
“They did not give me any information or anything available to get up and going. They told me I just need to get out there myself. They gave me (a little guidance) but no sit down to really help me understand the significance of my job. I really didn’t get that if I didn’t ask the question, I didn’t get it,” she said.
When her contract was up, she reapplied for her position in order to stay permanently and did not get it. She said she was told she didn’t score high enough on the state’s point system for hiring. When she asked the agency for her score and how the scoring system worked, she said she received no response.
“I’m hurt about it. Of all the years that I worked, I have never been treated like this before. If they would have been straight up with me, I would rather have not been chosen for the position,” she said.
As the only African American woman in her section at the department, she said she put up with cliques, jokes and coworkers asking uncomfortable questions. The treatment across the board was racist, she said.
“I was judged by a different standard than the rest of them,” she said.
Amy Thompson, who worked alongside Jordan at VetsNet, said she witnessed Jordan work hard there every day, with little to no support from the state. Thompson also used to work for WDVA in its Milwaukee claims office, and moved to VetsNet after negative experiences at WDVA.
“Jackie got stuck with a lot of hard cases with no assistance,” said Thompson, who worked at VetsNet for two-and-a-half years and now works for the Wisconsin Air National Guard. “She has the patience and personality to take on those hard cases like she did. I was shocked when she didn’t get that (permanent job).
“When you put somebody in that type of position who are talking to veterans she was dealing with, everything from sexual assault, to rape, to severe PTSD... Jackie would go above and beyond. She would go to people’s houses who needed gas cards. I think she was phenomenal,” Thompson said.
Gregory and Koehler, with whom she also worked, were also stellar, Thompson said. It was clear that there was a disconnect at times. The department didn’t understand the dynamics of what it took to help a desperate veteran in real time, and did not trust employees to make the best decisions in the field, she said.
“When you’ve got people like Jackie and Willie and Tiffany who are one-on-one with these veterans telling their stories, we get hit with the emotion, we get it with the whole backstory,” she said. “I understand there is a budget, but there are some cases where you just have to bend the rules a little bit. Because people’s lives are at stake.”
The department said it could not comment on Gregory or Jordan’s specific allegations but said it strives to listen well and is doing all it can to support marginalized veterans, especially in Milwaukee. It is working with its coordinators there but also strengthening relationships with nonprofits in the region.
It also has set up channels for employees to offer concerns directly to the secretary’s office, Kolar said.
“I value every human being. I hold them accountable to do the job,” she said. Milwaukee has been a particular focus for her, especially pre-pandemic, and she has built close relationships with groups there.
“I think it's very good and we’re always working on it. I’m traveling to Milwaukee (this) week. We’re getting back to our pre-pandemic personal interactions,” she said.
Employees who work with VORP are crucial, Kolar said, so much so that she had asked the Legislature for more funding to expand the program, adding more coordinators to reach more veterans. The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee rejected that request last month.
Saul Newton, director of the Veterans Chamber of Commerce in Milwaukee, works closely with the department and receives grant funding from it. The bulk of its business membership is in the Milwaukee area and he said working with underserved veterans has been a mandate from the department to their grantees.
“I certainly can’t speak to the experience of employees in the department, but can share that prioritizing outreach to underserved populations, veterans of color, women, LGBT veterans, veterans living in rural areas, that has been expressly communicated to us as a grantee that that is supposed to be a top priority,” he said.
In response, the chamber has created programming for those veterans groups and has made changes to its board of directors, which is more than half people of color, Newton said. It’s a focus the organization will continue to have, he said.
“Thanks to the support of the department, it has allowed us to have a much bigger reach and allowed us to be more strategic and targeted, and that is something that will continue to be ingrained in everything we do,” he said.
Native American veterans are another group that the state says it is working to reach, but a history of government distrust and lack of awareness about what benefits they are afforded can make connections challenging. The state has eight tribal veteran service officers — one for each tribe — positions that are funded by the tribes.
Shaun Stoeger, who is Lakota and an Army combat veteran, worked as the department’s tribal liaison, one of several positions mandated by state law for each state agency. He started in August 2017, filling the position which had been vacant for some time, he said.
He loved the job and initially had free rein to approach the role as he wanted, travelling the state to meet with tribal leaders.
“I am Native so I knew the way to connect with Native veterans and Native tribes was to be with the tribes,” he said. “I developed a plan, I went out and traveled the state and visited all the tribes. I'd visit half the tribes one month and then would flip-flop.” It was distinct from how other tribal liaisons approached the role, he said, sometimes rarely leaving Madison.
Bruce Wilbur, the tribal and county veterans service officer for Menominee County, who assists veterans in getting their benefits, said Stoeger was instrumental in keeping tribal leaders informed.
“He was the guy that tied us together,” he said. “We appreciate all of the work that Shaun did... we miss him.”
Despite his passion for the work, Stoeger said his $50,000 salary could not support his family. In his last 16 months working for the state, he took a part-time job at a hospital on weekends, working seven days a week just so he could feed his family, he said.
“Prior to that we were in the food pantry getting what Natives call ‘commods,’” he said.
Under the previous administration, Stoeger said Zimmerman pushed to raise his pay. When Evers was elected, the push for his raise disappeared, he said. He requested a raise several times to his supervisor, Deputy Secretary Kathy Still, but nothing happened, he said.
“She basically blew me off,” he said. The state’s tribes pay the state $101,300 each year for his position, and he is making about $50,000, he said.
The salary for tribal liaisons is set by the Department of Administration and the Department of Personnel Management, which also sets guidelines for raises.
In this position, the additional funding pays for health and retirement benefits, transportation, meals, lodging and other travel expenses for meeting with tribes statewide, Vigue said. She said the agency will be able to hire for the position at a slightly higher rate, based on DOA guidance.
Stoeger said the department also didn’t listen well to feedback on how to best connect with Native people.
“Tradition is you go and see people face to face and you see heart to heart,” he said. He acknowledged the pandemic limited opportunities to do that, but said he felt concerns from employees with lived experiences similar to the veterans they serve were ignored.
“A lot of times it's just checking a box,” he said.
After the department tried to reallocate him to other agencies to help with the pandemic, he left.
“While I’m funded 100% by tribes, I should be helping tribes, not helping other departments. You have thousands of other people you can call on,” said Stoeger, who left in March.
“I miss that job every single day without fail,” he said.
The department said it could not comment on the specifics of Stoeger’s tenure but said it is bound by state laws with how or if to give salary increases. It can be a challenge to significantly increase a state salary even if it is warranted, Vigue said.
Koehler and Stoeger’s positions went unfilled for the last few months because of state hiring freezes during the pandemic, but the agency is working to fill them as soon as possible by next month, Kolar said.
“The work these employees do is extremely important to the department, regardless of whether or not they report directly to the secretary. She values the collaborative effort for outreach to veterans that is possible with this team working together instead of in silos,” Vigue said.
The tribal liaison is a critical position and also a focus of the agency, Kolar said, noting she frequently travels the state with the liaison meeting with and listening to Native veterans and tribal leaders.
“I can't emphasize enough the criticality of that position, the outreach to the tribes,” she said. “Per capita, in service, Native Americans serve at a much higher rate than other Americans. It is critical to reach out to Native veterans.”
For their part, agency officials say they have made great strides in the last three years building bridges to veteran communities. They have built a coalition of nonprofits working on mental health issues, including veteran suicide. The network includes the Zablocki VA Medical Center mental health division, Mental Health America Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Continuum of Care and other nonprofit and veterans organizations.
“These coalitions did not exist before. Now that these inroads have been made, we are able to utilize these connections on a myriad of issues,” Vigue said.
In November 2019, Evers issued an executive order directing government agencies to implement a series of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, including requiring each state agency to draft an “action plan” to “build an infrastructure and culture committed to equity and inclusion.” The Department of Veterans Affairs released its plan in December 2020, to run through June 30, 2023.
That order set the tone for all of state government and has reverberated through the Department of Veterans Affairs as well, said its Deputy Secretary James Bond, who has worked at the agency since 2010.
“Under this administration, I’ve seen a significant change as it relates to equity, inclusion and reaching out to those underserved populations,” said Bond, who is gay and Black. Though he has always been out as a gay man at work, it was not until this administration that he felt comfortable sharing his story with co-workers, he said.
“I am generally a private person and I don’t like to share a lot about my personal self, but I felt compelled last year, for example, to share with other employees about my struggles with my sexuality and what it’s like living as an African American here in Wisconsin,” he said, noting that he shared stories of being called the N-word and being pulled over by police.
Whatever the veteran’s background, Kolar said she values all service.
“I don’t consider this job political. I am very honored to be in the Gov. Evers administration and that on day one we said we respect all human beings,” she said.
“It is my motivation to serve the over 350,000 veterans in Wisconsin and that means I work with everybody.”