My Great Aunt Elinor passed away in her sleep this past Sunday. She lived a long 92 years before it was her time to go and that’s a pretty good run in anybody’s book. Don’t feel bad for my family, Elinor had deteriorated over the past few years due to vascular dementia to the point that she no longer realized who anyone in her family was any more. I had not seen her in quite a few years. She was a constant source of conversation between my Dad and I whenever we talked. She never married or had children and instead devoted her life to her job in the Public Health Service from which she retired as a Captain, the Army equivalent of a Colonel (O-6). Her “claim to fame” was that for several years she served in the Philippines after WWII helping rebuild that country after years of war and destruction by helping rebuild the nursing staff population that was lost during the war years. Developing young women into nurses helped staff the hospitals that helped the country back from the brink of total devastation.
An officer in the Public Health Service? Yep, ever wonder why the surgeon general gets to wear a beard (C. Everett Coop)? Ever wonder why his called the Surgeon General but wears the uniform of a Navy Admiral? That’s because they are basically uniformed civilians that wear a uniform in non-combative roles. There are seven branches in the Uniformed Services, but only 5 that are also in the Armed Forces.
- Air Force
- Coast Guard
- Public Health Service
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
So why do these two wear uniforms but basically perform non-combat duties? Basically for their own safety. Even though its sometimes not paid any heed to, the laws of war as conducted by civilized nations do offer some protection to members of the military that are not available to civilians on the battlefield. Like what? Well, not so long ago it was still common for civilians on the battlefield to be arrested and tried and sometimes even executed as spies! Both the PHS and NOAA have duties that sometimes cross into the realm of military conflict and having that uniform and protection under the laws of war (Geneva for example) offers a measure of safety, or at least recognized status. I have it on good authority that the NOAA has both aircraft and vessels that are very similar in capabilities that our armed forces have on hand, yet are not as encumbered by certain treaty restrictions placed upon our military that limit their ability to be ported across the globe. Just saying….
Why the Navy of all branches to adopt the uniform of? Hell, I don’t know. According to Wikipedia the PHS was started to provide hospitals for sailors at one time, which probably made sense since a ship sailing from San Francisco to Boston with a sick crewman with plague could do a lot of economic damage, better to have places to treat them I guess. I suppose that is a good enough reason to wear that branch. Members from both the PHS and NOAA can be ordered into military service if called upon by the President, but I would think that would be rare these days.
Officers in both branches (there are no enlisted ranks) receive the same pay and benefits as their military counterparts and are accorded all of the same rights and privileges for their equivalent rank. The only thing that differentiates the two non-military branches from their military counterparts officers is the design on their buttons and the sometimes rather lax physical standards between the two.
Rest in Peace Elinor, love you.