Skip to content

Protecting, Promoting And Advancing The Health And Safety Of The Nation

Vernon Nagel C.jpg

By Lieutenant Commander Patrick Harper,

U.S. Public Health Service

At this year’s Memorial Day service in Memorial Park, I had the honor of speaking alongside my grandfather, Vernon Nagel, about his experiences as Active Duty Coast Guard during WWII and how he inspired my service as a commissioned officer in the United States Public Health Service (PHS). As is common after I speak about my little known branch of service, I was approached by many community members after the ceremony and via phone later in the day with questions about the PHS, its mission, and my experiences as an officer. It was great to be able to chat with so many interested people that day and I hope this short article might be an opportunity to present more information to more people.

The U.S. Public Health Service is made up of approximately 6500 commissioned officers with qualifying health care degrees. Overseen by the Surgeon General of the United States, currently Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, our ranks include doctors, dentist, pharmacists, nurses, veterinarians, scientists, and a variety of other health professionals tasked with everything from water supply sanitation to bioterrorism response. Founded as the Marine Hospital Service under the first Adams administration in 1798, our original mission was providing health care to sick and disabled seamen, including the quarantine of Naval ships. As the scope of our responsibilities grew, our name and mission changed and today the U.S. Public Health Services works to “Protect, Promote, and Advance the Health and Safety of the Nation.”

For any public health endeavors that Uncle Sam is involved with, PHS officers are there. The list of agencies we serve is long and includes entities like the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Indian Health Service, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, The U.S. Coast Guard and many more. However, more important than the daily functions of the PHS is our capability as a deployable response force. If domestic or international disaster demands rapid health-related response, we are there. Examples include anthrax exposure response following 9/11, establishing mass treatment field hospitals during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Haiti earthquake response in 2010. Most recently, the PHS manned the frontlines of the fight against Ebola by operating the Monrovia Medical Unit, an Ebola treatment center in the West African nation of Liberia.

I am only in my sixth year of service as a PHS officer, but my experiences have been quite varied and interesting. I received my commission in 2009 as I completed my pharmacy degree. I spent a short time in the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Policy in Washington, DC. This was during the agency’s creation of the Center for Tobacco Products, a landmark achievement in federal tobacco regulation. My longest tour has been with the Indian Health Service including a brief stay serving Alaskan Natives in Anchorage, Alaska followed by several years at a major medical center on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico. This past August, I changed duty stations and now am the Chief Pharmacist at Metropolitan Correctional Center – Chicago with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Although the patient populations I have attended to are quite different than the sick and disabled sailors the PHS cared for originally (including my grandpa at the U.S. Marine Hospital at Norfolk, Virginia in 1945), this mission of my branch of service continues to give me great pride. The confused looks and questions that follow my introduction as a PHS officer will undoubtedly continue for the remainder of my career, but they are questions I will always be answer proudly as well.

(More information on the U.S. Public Health Service may be found at

LCDR Harper C.jpg

Protecting, Promoting, and Advancing the Health and Safety of the Nation

LCDR Patrick Harper

Vernon Nagel, USCG–Ret.

Leave a Comment