In a First, Public Health Officers Receive DoD Humanitarian Medal

Members of the USPHS Commissioned Corps receive their Defense Department Humanitarian Service Medal during a Nov. 15 ceremony at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services building in Washington, D.C. (Tony Lombardo/MOAA)

More than 1,400 members of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps received the Defense Department's Humanitarian Service Medal on Nov. 15 for hurricane response efforts in 2017.

It marked the first time Commissioned Corps officers received the medal for a large-scale deployment, USPHS reports.

In May, the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved the award for qualified members of all branches of the uniformed services for the 2017 hurricane response, which widened eligibility to include USPHS.

USPHS is a uniformed service made of nearly 6,500 public health professionals, all of whom serve as officers. Last year, 1,460 of these officers deployed to hurricane-ravaged communities in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

Duties included: case management for medical evacuees and their attendants; direct patient care; and help with recovery operations in rebuilding or strengthening local healthcare and social systems, according to a USPHS release.

medal_humanitarian(1).jpg

Capt. Raquel Peat spent time in both Puerto Rico and Florida, serving as a planning chief for one of the Commissioned Corps' Rapid Deployment Forces Teams.

“Of course we don't want to deploy, because when we deploy, people are in need,” said Peat, a native of Jamaica. “But when we do deploy, we are willing and happy to support and provide health care, nationally or internationally.”

Cmdr. Patricio Garcia assisted the evacuation of medical patients, relocating the infirm from the Virgin Islands to medical facilities in Georgia, Florida, Texas and Louisiana. The patients, who suffer a wide range of illnesses, were to remain stateside until it was safe to return home. Some of the evacuees remain displaced today, Garcia said.

While honored to receive the medal, Garcia said, “We get more for serving other people. That in itself is a reward.”

USPHS Vice Adm. Jerome Adams, the U.S. Surgeon General, visited the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to survey the recovery missions there.

“The concept of service before self has never been more evident to me than during my visit to the hurricane-stricken regions,” Adams said in a recorded statement during the ceremony. “I was continuously inspired by the leadership and the integrity of our officers. While the devastation and destruction will always stay with me, so too will the rescue and disaster personnel, firefighters, the volunteers and so many others who turned to helping their fellow man even while their own lives were being upended.”