You, Too, Can Have a Great Career in the U.S. Public Health Service

By Shepherd, Craig A. | Journal of Environmental Health, January-February 2010 | Go to article overview

You, Too, Can Have a Great Career in the U.S. Public Health Service


Shepherd, Craig A., Journal of Environmental Health


Many attendees at NEHA's Annual Educational Conference (AEC) & Exhibition might wonder about the uniformed officers who also attend the conference. A few of these people in uniform are U.S. Navy and U.S. Army officers, but most are U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps officers. Most of those USPHS officers are environmental health officers (EHOs).

As a recently retired USPHS EHO, I would like to share some details about my more than 30 years in the U.S. Public Health Service and about how you can become a USPHS EHO.

30 Years of Service

I received my commission as a Commissioned Corps officer in the USPHS on July 1, 1979, and was assigned to what was then called the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration, Saint Elizabeths Hospital, Washington, DC, as a staff sanitarian. The largest federally funded mental hospital in the country, Saint Elizabeths housed approximately 2,000 mental patients and was essentially a city within a city. I gained extensive experience there in the areas of sanitation, food service, institutional environmental health, and more.

After my assignment at Saint Elizabeths, I spent the next 29 years serving other agencies in different positions, including

* U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): consumer safety officer in Virginia;

* Indian Health Service (IHS): staff sanitarian, district sanitarian, and environmental health director in Maryland, Alabama, and Nashville, respectively; and

* Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Environmental Health Services Branch: senior EHO in Atlanta.

On November 1, 2005, Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, the 17th Surgeon General of the United States, selected me to serve as the chief EHO of the USPHS, serving and representing both the Commissioned Corps and Civil Service environmental health professionals of the USPHS. This assignment, which was concurrent with my assignment at CDC, was a four-year term that ended on October 31, 2009.

Service Highlight: Mission in Central America

One of the best and most rewarding temporary duty assignments during my career was my service aboard the United States Naval Ship (USNS) Comfort from June 15 to October 15, 2007. I was the officer-in-charge of four USPHS teams and 71 USPHS officers (see photo).

The mission was part of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Mike Leavitt's Initiative for Health Diplomacy in the Americas and supported President George W. Bush's advancement of social justice in the Western Hemisphere.

Through this initiative, Secretary Leavitt channeled technical and financial resources from the U.S. government and the private sector to improve health care for people in Central America. The coalition serving on the USNS Comfort included USPHS Commissioned Corps EHOs; dentists, physicians, nurses, and other health professionals from HHS; and military medical and humanitarian personnel. We spent approximately one week in each of 12 countries and provided many clinical, environmental health, veterinarian, and public health services in each country.

USPHS EHOs: A Growing Profession

As of September 15, 2009, 6,569 officers were in the USPHS Commissioned Corps. Of the 386 EHOs, 70% were assigned to IHS, FDA, and CDC (data not shown). Table 1 lists the 11 professional categories of the USPHS and their temporary grades. Temporary grades span from O-1 (typically Commissioned Officer Student Training and Extern Program [COSTEP] students) to as high as O-9 and O-10.

The EHO category has shown slow, steady growth over the past 25 years (Figure 1). Since 1985 the category strength has increased approximately 39%. Today's EHOs are well-trained and capable officers who are assigned to many agencies and programs. In fact, a 2009 agreement signed by HHS and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) opens the door for more officers to be potentially assigned to one of the eight DOI agencies (e. …

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