By Shelley Hoogstraten-Miller, retired Captain of the United States Public Health Service
Can you name the eight United States uniformed services? Do not worry! Most people cannot. One of the eight services is the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (USPHS CC). The USPHS is dedicated to the service of health. Its frontline officers serve in numerous agencies across the government as physicians, nurses, dentists, veterinarians, scientists and other health professionals. It emphasizes the care of underserved communities across the nation and world, including the Indian Health Service. The USPHS itself is a division within the Department of Health and Human Services. It is led by the U.S. Surgeon General, currently Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy. Members of the USPHS are eligible for all the same benefits as active-duty military and veterans and are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
USPHS officers are often the first to deploy to danger zones, serving in the front lines of public health by treating the very ill and researching communicable diseases. They also have day jobs doing medical and scientific research, serving in hospitals and health clinics, and conducting health and medical inspections on our borders. USPHS officers are on call to deploy within 12 hours as necessary, and besides augmenting the military health service in places like Afghanistan, they serve alongside civilian medical personnel during disasters such as the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on 9/11, African Ebola virus outbreak in 2016, COVID-19 pandemic, hurricane flooding in the southeastern U.S. and nearly 800 other events in just the last decade.
How did the USPHS come about? Early in the founding of our country, the nation relied on ships and sailors for commerce and transporting goods from one state to the next. When sailors became sick, there were few options for them to get medical attention away from home. In 1798, Congress passed the Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen establishing the Marine Hospital Fund, a collection of hospitals in larger port cities to take care of sailors. In 1870, Congress formalized it into the Marine Hospital Service as its own bureau within the Department of the Treasury with a new role of Supervising Surgeon. In 1871, the first Supervising Surgeon, Dr. John Maynard Woodworth, gave it a more military-style structure and required that the medical corps wear uniforms. The Commissioned Corps was officially organized in 1889. After many contagious epidemics raged through the country in the 19th century, the role of the MHS was expanded to serve the general public, and in 1902, it was renamed the Public Health and Marine Hospital Services, shortened to the Public Health Service in 1912. In 1939, President Roosevelt moved the PHS from the Treasury Department to the Federal Security Agency, ultimately dissolved in 1953. In 1979, the PHS was moved to its current home — the Department of Health and Human Services.
All of this may be more than you care to know about the USPHS, but as a retired USPHS officer, I feel our Tribe needs to recognize every one of the eight services, not just those that were armed. My picture currently hangs on the Veterans’ wall at the Cultural Heritage Center, but I am identified as a Navy officer as we follow their ranks. I would love to see our flag — and those of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and our newest service, the Space Force — displayed with the others and the veterans coin redesigned to recognize every veteran. Unfortunately, these omissions are not just an issue in our Tribe. This past Veterans Day, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Native American Veterans Memorial dedication did not include USPHS and NOAA. According to James Currie (past executive director of the Commissioned Officers Association), this omission was brought to the attention of the Smithsonian before the building of the memorial, and despite the Smithsonian’s charge that the memorial must be inclusive, honoring all Native American veterans from all eras and branches of service, they chose to leave us out. This omission is now the subject of a pending lawsuit. Therefore, let’s begin with the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and recognize that we have all served our country honorably and deserve the recognition.
The next time you are at a gathering, wager a bet that your companion cannot name the eight uniformed services. They are the Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force, Coast Guard, Public Health Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and our newest service, the Space Force.
Capt. (Ret.), USPHS