Protecting the Health and Welfare of Our Nation

Most people, when asked to name the seven uniformed services of the United States confidently rattle off Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, and Navy but then, they start to falter.  Wreaths Across America was contacted and asked to amend ceremony scripts to include and give proper credit to the other two branches and is honored to do so.

“Officers of the United States Public Health Service have been around in uniformed service since 1889,” states Col. (ret.) James Currie, Exec. Dir. of the Commissioned Officers Association of the U.S. Public Health Service. “After the Civil War, the country needed a mobile corps of physicians who could be sent anywhere in the country where there was a public health need. Back in the nineteenth century, they were sent to places where there was cholera and yellow fever; epidemics of one kind or another.” 

The mission of the Commissioned Officers Association is to represent and support the uniformed officers in the United States Public Health Service (USPHS), of which there are 6500 active duty. The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization has been around since 1951. “Even though people may be familiar with the U.S. Surgeon General, most aren’t aware of the uniformed corps. The Surgeon General is the director of what’s called the Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service. The corps all have medical backgrounds of one kind or another, and they wear a Navy uniform unless they’re part of the 450 public health service officers assigned to the Coast Guard. In fact, the Surgeon General of the Coast Guard is a two-star admiral in the Public Health Service. The largest number of officers, roughly 1,900 of them work for the Indian Health Service providing health care to Native American populations on reservations.” 

The health service has grown from the initial corps of just physicians to encompass eleven different health categories including, therapists, nurses, pharmacists, and dentists, to name a few. They are veterans under federal law entitled to all of the benefits, including being buried in a veteran’s cemetery. They participate in events at Arlington National Cemetery, and you may very well see a public health service contingent marching in local Veterans or Memorial Day parades. USPHS officers are serving in 22 federal agencies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to Homeland Security to the Department of Agriculture. Many of the native Spanish-speaking officers deploy to the U.S. Southern border to help there. They serve along-side members of the other uniformed services in time of war.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the seventh uniformed service wearing Coast Guard uniforms, and they’re a small unit of 321 people mostly known for the hurricane tracking flights into the eye of the storm. NOAA also drops and maintain buoys and conducts oceanographic research.  

Col. Currie tells us several years ago one of the association’s members reached out to him soliciting his sponsorship for a veteran’s wreath through Wreaths Across America. “I looked into the organization and its activities and thought, yeah, that’s a good group. Being a veteran myself I believe in honoring those who have served.” Col. Currie has been an annual donor to Wreaths Across America. When he learned Wreaths Across America ceremony scripts paid tribute to the Armed Forces singling out each branch by name, but never mentioned USPHS or NOAA, it was time to reach out. “Frankly, educating people about the USPHS and NOAA is what we do almost every day.”

With a Ph.D. in History, Col. Currie reminds us not only of the heroic service in world conflicts but in more recent times. “You may recall during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, the United States was terrified the disease would enter this country, but we were successful in helping to contain the virus in West Africa. This disease has a very high fatality rate, yet these people volunteered to go to Liberia. It takes a lot of guts as far as I’m concerned to be treating people who are vomiting all around you, and you hope you don’t have a breach in your HazMat suit. The entire Public Health Service Corps was given a Presidential Unit Citation, given to a unit associated with the U.S. military, for exceptional service.” 

The Commissioned Corps officers have already been participating in Wreaths Across America ceremonies across the country and will continue to do so according to Col. Currie. “They are a unique service corps; they are professionals, and I can tell you they’re proud of their service and being United States veterans.”