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From Navy Nurse to VA’s Top Executive

After 38 years of active duty and reserve enlistments, Karen Flaherty-Oxler, MSN, RN, GNu’85 is now leading one of Philly’s largest medical centers—and bringing health care to 60,000 other veterans.

Karen Flaherty-Oxler was fresh out of Skidmore’s undergraduate nursing program when she signed on to serve two years in the US Navy. She figured she’d leave the military after that, but instead those two years turned into 10, and then 10 became a full 38 years of active duty and reserve enlistments.

By the time she retired from the Navy in 2012, Flaherty-Oxler had risen from staff nurse to Deputy Surgeon General of Navy Medicine—and she held a rank of two-star admiral. “I never envisioned that, ever,” she says. “And I certainly couldn’t even fathom the different types of jobs and responsibilities and opportunities I would have.” 

Now Flaherty-Oxler is five months into the newest of those opportunities. In June, she became the top executive at one of Philadelphia’s major hospitals: the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center.

As the Philly VA’s executive director, she oversees health care services for 60,000 veterans and manages an operating budget of nearly $550 million.

She’s also the first woman to hold that title—though being the first or only woman somewhere is nothing new for her. As she advanced through the naval ranks, and especially once she began sitting in meetings at the Pentagon, “I could very often be the only woman colleague at the table,” she says. “So I did my homework. I made sure I was prepared and I always had something pertinent to say.”

“I always felt I opened the door a little more widely for the next female flag officer or ensign or seaman apprentice to come behind me,” she adds.

Aside from marking a Philly VA first, her appointment is also a homecoming for Flaherty-Oxler, who was an associate director there from 2001 to 2007 before being recalled to active duty. She’d been working in private sector health care when the executive director role opened up, and says she was eager to return to “caring for those who need our care because they’ve served our country.” 

Even with a schedule that’s consistently full-to-bursting, she makes time to walk the VA hallways often, talking to patients, but also quietly observing—and taking action when it’s needed. “As a veteran, I can understand some of the steps that [our patients] have walked in before,” she says. “I also can have different conversations with veterans because there’s a level of credibility and an authenticity.” 

It was after her first stretch of active duty that Flaherty-Oxler came to Penn, enrolling in the Master’s in Nursing Administration program in 1982 with funds from the GI Bill. “I was challenged, I was excited, and I was intrigued by learning,” she remembers. “Penn positioned me very, very well to be successful with raising questions, changing conversations, and focusing on priorities.” 

Her new post brings plenty of all three, while also pulling in strands from each of her past roles over the years: as a clinician, a veteran, a health care administrator in the private sector, and a senior leader in the Navy.

Flaherty-Oxler says some of her current goals center on customer service, tailored programs for women veterans, and inspiring her colleagues to think bigger and find joy in their work each day. “The Philadelphia VA should be No. 1 in the country, and we will be,” she adds. “We’re on the journey.”