Happy Veterans Day, or what was previously known as Armistice Day. It’s a day to celebrate the service of all U.S. military veterans. USPHS officers are considered veterans, but aren’t usually part of the armed forces. So, why are USPHS officers considered veterans? The key to this answer is in the word usually.
USPHS was established as a uniformed service in 1889 and was organized according to a military model. The idea was that a mobile cadre of USPHS officers could be sent where needed to protect the nation’s health at U.S. marine hospitals, quarantine stations, and immigrant stations. But being in uniform and going where you’re needed doesn’t mean you’re a veteran. It requires service in war.
When the U.S. entered the Spanish-American war in 1898, USPHS was militarized for the first time by presidential authority. USPHS officers helped control the spread of yellow fever in soldier camps and a USPHS surgeon was aboard a revenue cutter in the battle of Manila Bay. The involvement of USPHS during the war was unprecedented and highlighted the need to clarify the role of USPHS during wartime without compromising the nation’s need for it in public health protection. Thus, in 1902 legislation authorized the president,
"...to utilize the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service in times of threatened or actual war to such extent and in such manner as shall in his judgement promote the public interest without, however, in any wise impairing the efficiency of the Service for the purposes for which the same was created and is maintained.”
Accordingly, President Wilson used this authority to militarize USPHS in anticipation of entering WWI. During WWI USPHS officers cared for sick and wounded soldiers and provided care on Navy and Coast Guard ships. It was after WWI that armistice day was established to celebrate those who served in the war. Still, USPHS officers at the time did not receive military benefits nor veteran status.
It was through the leadership of Surgeon General Thomas Parran that USPHS officers became U.S. veterans. Throughout the mid 30s and early 40s Parran was on a mission to create a tightly run USPHS and to bolster the status of Corps officers. Due to their unique role in the country, Corps officers did not receive military nor civil service benefits. One congressman had noted that Corps officers were, “neither fish nor fowl,” a statement that in many ways still holds weight today. Parran at one time requested that USPHS be transferred to the war department which was rejected as they saw USPHS as a civilian service. Parran was concerned that without enticing benefits, USPHS would have a hard time recruiting officers. Parran wrote, edited, and re-wrote many bills to congress to fight for Corps benefits from 1943 thru 1944. Finally, congress passed the 1944 U.S. Public Health Service Act that included military benefits for Corps officers and included instruction for the president to make USPHS officers part of the military. The following summer of 1945, President Truman issued an executive order declaring the Commissioned Corps,
"to be a military service and a branch of the land and naval forces of the United States during the period of the present war.”
The number of Corps officers quintupled from the 500s to approximately 2500. A majority of officers (more than 600) were assigned with the Coast Guard. 5 USPHS officers were killed in combat and 10 others lost their lives during their military service time (Brand, 1989).
USPHS remained part of the land and naval forces through 1952 through the Korean War after which point the president did not extend his authority to maintain the Corps as a military force. There have been officers that have supported missions in Vietnam and the Gulf War; however, the Corps has not been fully militarized like in the World Wars and Korea.
Even though they had been militarized before, USPHS officers earned veteran status upon entry into WWII thanks to the work of Thomas Parran. USPHS officers served during wartime and lost their lives in battle. Yes, they were smaller in numbers, but the size of USPHS relative to the armed forces is much smaller. Given the imminent threat of war through the years and that USPHS was being militarized for those wars it makes sense that they started to earn military benefits and veterans status. Even now the Public Health Service act states that,
“ In time of war, or of emergency involving the national defense proclaimed by the President, he may by Executive order declare the commissioned corps of the Service to be a military service.”
When you take the oath to be an officer, this is what you are signing up to do. I remember when I joined USPHS my mom asked me, “So, can they send you off to war?” The answer was yes, yes they can.
I'm not confused. I know that I would have been towards the back of line in that regard. On the other hand, history tends to repeat itself.
To be clear, USPHS did not earn veteran status by strictly being a mobile cadre of medical officers although that structure likely facilitated their entry into the military. USPHS officers earned veteran status by participating in all the great wars the U.S. has seen. Given the uncertainty of the next big conflict and USPHS’s likely involvement, it made sense to provide its officers military benefits and veteran status. Being a veteran doesn’t just mean you wear a uniform. It means that when war is upon the Nation, you may be called to serve. USPHS has done that, and it will likely happen in the future.
- Parascandola, J. Militarization of the PHS Commissioned Corps. September, 2001.
- Lynne Page Snyder. “Passage and Significance of the 1944 Public Health Service Act.” Public Health Reports (1974-), vol. 109, no. 6, Association of Schools of Public Health, 1994, pp. 721–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4597709
- Brand, Jeanne L. “THE UNITED STATES PUBLIC HEALTH SERVICE AND INTERNATIONAL HEALTH, 1945-1950.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 63, no. 4, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, pp. 579–98, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44451124.