The Nation’s Unsung Heroes of Public Health

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Me and Acting Surgeon General Moritsugu, medical 2007

Today is Veterans Day, population health a day to salute those who serve and have served our country in uniform. Most people are familiar with the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and U.S. Coast Guard, but don’t know about the other two uniform services: Commissioned Officer Corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (USPHS). I had the honor of serving as a nurse officer in the USPHS from 2005 – 2012.

On the USNS Comfort, 2007, with one of my patients somewhere off the coast of South America
On the USNS Comfort, 2007, with one of my patients somewhere off the coast of South America

For more than 200 years, men and women have served on the front lines of our nation’s public health in what is today called the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service.

Spraying my uniform with permethrin to protect against insects, on USNS Comfort, 2007
Spraying my uniform with permethrin to protect against insects, on USNS Comfort, 2007

The Commissioned Corps traces its beginnings back to the U.S. Marine Hospital Service protecting against the spread of disease from sailors returning from foreign ports and maintaining the health of immigrants entering the country. Currently, Commissioned Corps officers are involved in health care delivery to underserved and vulnerable populations, disease control and prevention, biomedical research, food and drug regulation, mental health and drug abuse services, and response efforts for natural and man-made disasters as an essential component of the largest public health program in the world. (from www.usphs.gov) 

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PHS vet officer
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PHS dental officer

USPHS officers come from a variety of backgrounds such as doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, vets, environmental health, and more. If you have kids thinking about a health-related career, I encourage you to look into the USPHS. In some cases, they can get their student loans paid back for serving at an underserved location like a Native American hospital or a federal prison. There are also opportunities with other federal agencies like the CDC, FDA, and NIH.

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Deepwater Horizon oil spill crew, 2010

USPHS officers serve day to day at one of these federal agencies and train to deploy to public health emergencies. Colleagues of mine provided public health expertise after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and more recently the ebola outbreak in West Africa. I deployed on a humanitarian mission to South America on the USNS Comfort in 2007, as well as to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill emergency operations center in 2010.

Besides getting to help people, one of the best parts of being in the USPHS was my fellow officers. Some of my favorite people in this world I met in the USPHS.

Me, Dan, Laura, Thomas, 2009
Me, Dan, Laura, Thomas, 2009