Back to Top Skip to main content Skip to sub-navigation

Despite a low profile, Commissioned Corps nurses are proud to serve

Military health personnel posing for a selfie PHS Lt. Cmdr. Staci McNair (left) is a nurse and the medical director of the Addiction Services Element at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland; PHS Cmdr. Nakeya Pryor-Bazemore is a nurse and the deputy chief/clinic manager for child and adolescent psychiatry services at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia. McNair was a Lt. at the time of this photo (Courtesy of United States Public Health Service).

Recommended Content:

National Nurses Week | Nurses Week

If most American citizens are unaware that the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service is one of the nation's seven uniformed services, it wouldn't come as a surprise to many of its nurses, who make up the largest contingent of the corps.

"During the pandemic we've been highly visible, but still, people didn't even know there were PHS officers on TV standing behind Dr. (Anthony) Fauci and the president," said PHS Lt. Cmdr. Staci McNair, a nurse and the medical director of the Addiction Services Element at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.

"They might've thought they were Coast Guard," she added, because the uniforms look similar.

Though McNair and many other nurses in the PHS are working in numerous Department of Defense billets, the Commissioned Corps is actually a part of the Department of Health and Human Services, and it has no enlisted personnel. That accounts for some part of its low profile. Another is its modest size — more than 6,100 officers serve as physicians, nurses, dentists, veterinarians, scientists, engineers and other professionals. By contrast, there are more than twice as many Army 1st lieutenants.

But nurses in the PHS help fight disease, provide disaster relief, conduct research, and care for patients in underserved communities across the nation and around the world.

They serve the DOD and well beyond: you'll find them working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, Environmental Protection Agency, and Federal Bureau of Prisons, along with the departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Immigration, Marshals Service, National Parks, and more.

"What's unique about Public Health is we find our own job," said PHS Cmdr. Nakeya Pryor-Bazemore, a nurse and the deputy chief/clinic manager for child and adolescent psychiatry services at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia. "It's not like the Navy or the Army where they tell you where you're going to be - you determine that. When you want to apply for a new agency, you apply for the job, they give you the interview, and if they accept you, then you get orders to that place."

Both McNair and Pryor-Bazemore say that the PHS nursing corps is an exceptionally tight-knit group, and many of them serve as de-facto recruiters for PHS because of the pride they take in their service. But they'd like to see the number of officers grow more quickly, because of the demand and the workload.

"We are definitely being noticed, especially now because of the pandemic," said Pryor-Bazemore.

The 20-year veteran had never heard of the Commissioned Corps until nursing school, when a friend, who was part of the Junior Commissioned Officer Student Training and Extern Program (COSTEP) at PHS, told her that students in health-related undergraduate, masters and doctoral programs could train alongside active-duty officers during school breaks. Pryor-Bazemore did that, and also took part in the Senior COSTEP program, in which students in their final year of training are paid in exchange for committing to enroll in the Commissioned Corps upon graduation.

"PHS is focusing now on where the demand is, where the shortages are," she said. "If I was joining PHS today, they would probably give me the option of going to (the Division of Immigration Health Service), which is heavily in need of services right now, or (the Bureau of) Prisons, another underserved population, and the Indian Health Service. Those are the top three where they're sending new officers."

Opportunity for growth

For her part, being a nurse at a federal prison in North Carolina at the start of her PHS career "made me one of the best nurses I could be," Pryor-Bazemore said. "Some of the rare diseases that you read about in nursing school, like Stevens-Johnson syndrome, scabies - stuff you never thought you'd see in your whole nursing career, you see it there. You got the total nursing experience. You were the health care tech, the aide, I was changing dressings ... I mean, you were it. But it made me a better nurse."

Native Americans have always been an underserved population, she added.

"Their reservations are so remote. Just for them to get to a store is sometime two or three hours away," she said. "But a lot of places just need health care, and you're it, a lot of the time. They may have civilians, but it's not enough staffing."

Meanwhile, the overall nursing shortage nationwide is bad enough, affecting even a busy place like Fort Belvoir, in a heavily populated area of the country. For a remote tribal reservation in the far western part of the United States, it's that much harder to attract nurses, Pryor-Bazemore said, especially if they have a family.

"They want to grow the Corps, and they want applicants, but they're just not there," she said. "The nursing shortage is real. When you hear about nurses graduating and then even before they take their (certification exams), they're working - it's true, because the shortage is so bad. It starts with only letting a certain number of students into a school of nursing each year, and then you have nursing professors who are retiring at a high rate, and there's nobody to replace them."

Pryor-Bazemore's first deployment after her basic officer training course was a sort of trial by fire: helping out on the ground in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

"It was very stressful, very heartbreaking," she recalled. "We didn't know what to expect, and you're working side-by-side with your civilian counterparts."

These days, of course, the disaster scenario is COVID-19. Its effects are widespread, said McNair, who also works as psychiatric nurse practitioner for outpatient mental health services at Andrews.

"Since the pandemic, we've seen an influx of more patient referrals for addictions, mostly alcohol use," McNair said. "But we've been getting an unusual amount of marijuana or cannabis use, and even some opioid addiction. So that's fairly new for us."

McNair said the volume of demand for mental health and addiction services has been greater than the resources available to meet it.

"Because we don't have as many providers there as we would like to have, as far as psychotherapy and psychiatry, we only have room for active-duty service members,"she said. "We focus on those that are high-risk or those that have special duties, like presidential support duties' or those working with sensitive weaponry. "I haven't seen a retiree or a dependent in quite some time."

At Andrews there is one other PHS officer, a psychologist. "We wear a lot of hats," McNair said. "We're pretty busy.

So busy, in fact, that McNair said she intends to work on a formal request to increase the number of PHS billets at Andrews. Not that she's averse to hard work. Like Pryor-Bazemore, McNair started her PHS at that same federal prison in North Carolina.

"I grew from that," she said. "It prepared me for a lot of things. Leadership skills, being assertive and attendant - I learned a lot. I had no choice!"

So, what drew her to the PHS nursing corps?

It's what PHS stands for," she responded. "It's the opportunity for growth, for career progression, leadership opportunities. And you get all of those benefits as far as your career, but then you get to serve people who are underserved. People who don't have access to healthcare that other people do. People like inmates, and American Indians, or immigrants. That’s the rewarding part. Even now with the DOD, I know that with the shortage of mental health services for our active-duty service members ... that's where my heart is now.

"When you have a passion for something, and this is something that you really want to do, to help people that don't have the same privileges or access that you may have, or others, it kind of drives you or motivates you to get up and go to work, and do your best to help others. That's what attracted me to PHS and that's what's keeping me in PHS."

You also may be interested in...

Navy certified nurse midwife epitomizes life of service

Article
5/12/2021
Military health personnel wearing a face mask posing for a picture

Navy nurse contributes to Navy mission while representing Asian Pacific Americans as the only certified nurse midwifes

Recommended Content:

National Nurses Week | Nurses Week

Laughter really is among the best medicines, says Air Force nurse

Article
5/12/2021
Military personnel laughing

Air Force Col. Jacqueline Killian, senior nurse scientist for the 711th Human Performance Wing, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, talks about her 2015 PhD research on the health benefits of laughter yoga.

Recommended Content:

Stress | National Nurses Week | Nurses Week

Military nursing highlighted during National Nurses' Week

Article
5/11/2021
Military health personnel checking patients vitals

Nurse facts by the numbers for 2021 Nurses’ Week

Recommended Content:

National Nurses Week | Nurses Week

Join Us!! Fifth Live Town Hall with Brig. Gen. Anita Fligge

Article
5/11/2021
Image of Brig Gen Anita Fligge, Deputy Assistant Director, Education and Training and Chief Nursing Officer

Join us for the MHS' Fifth Live Town Hall with Brig. Gen. Anita Fligge

Recommended Content:

National Nurses Week | Nurses Week

Two Munson nurses at forefront of COVID-19 vaccination tracking

Article
5/11/2021
Nurses discussing COVID-19 documentation

Munson nurses Ashley Woodruff and Erin Richter are on forefront of inoculation and tracking of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Recommended Content:

National Nurses Week | Nurses Week

USU nursing students saved lives, receive medal

Article
5/11/2021
Military personnel during their graduation ceremony

USU Nursing Students Receive Medals for Life-Saving Response

Recommended Content:

National Nurses Week | Nurses Week

MHS Townhall, May 11, 2021

Video
5/11/2021
Brig Gen Anita Fligge, Deputy Assistant Director, Education and Training and Chief Nursing Officer, Defense Health Agency, and Commander of the Air Force Element at Defense Health Headquarters, who is going to share with us the importance of nurses in the Military Health System, how the Military Health System is recognizing our nurses across the enterprise, as well as wrap up National Nurses Week, this year’s theme being Unified, Reliable, Ready.

Tune in for another MHS and Military OneSource Town Hall with Brigadier General Anita L. Fligge

Recommended Content:

National Nurses Week | Nurses Week

Eielson nurse says technology, readiness integral to military nursing

Article
5/10/2021
Military health personnel checking the ears of a patient

Air Force 1st Lt. Katelyn Schoneweis, a clinical nurse at Eielson Medical Clinic at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, said technology like MHS GENESIS, working with the Army and her commander’s increased focus on readiness have already benefitted her early in her career.

Recommended Content:

National Nurses Week | MHS GENESIS | Nurses Week

Army nurse recognized with national nursing honor

Article
5/10/2021
Military health personnel wearing face mask reviewing a patient's record

Army Lt. Col. DeAnna Hutchings was one of only 18 nurses from across the nation -- and the only military nurse -- to receive the 2021 Circle of Excellence award from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses for care of acutely and critically ill patients and their families.

Recommended Content:

National Nurses Week | Nurses Week

Diversity, flexibility of Nurse Corps members makes them stand out

Article
5/7/2021
Military personnel speaking at a podium

Unified. Reliable. Ready. – National Nurses Week holds special significance after unforeseen events of the past year.

Recommended Content:

National Nurses Week | Nurses Week

Daughter of Mexican immigrants excels as Navy nurse

Article
5/7/2021
Military health personnel posing for a picture

Navy registered nurse at the Naval Hospital Twentynine Palms (NHTP) Emergency Department at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command Twentynine Palms in California serves Marines and sailors alike.

Recommended Content:

National Nurses Week | Nurses Week

Nurse and Tech Week: Air Force airmen are battle-tested and ready

Article
5/6/2021
12 COVID-19 patients aboard a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft

For the past year, Air Force nurses and medical technicians have found themselves on the front lines in the battle against the COVID-19 disease.

Recommended Content:

COVID-19 Vaccine Toolkit | National Nurses Week | Technology | Nurses Week | May Toolkit | Coronavirus

EACH celebrates National Nurses Week with a reflection on the pandemic

Article
5/6/2021
Military health personnel inputting information into a computer

Evans Army Community Hospital celebrates National Nurses Week 2021.

Recommended Content:

National Nurses Week | Nurses Week | Coronavirus | COVID-19 Vaccine Toolkit

BAMC Nurses Week 2021

Video
5/6/2021
Black and white image of two nurses wearing PPE in a hospital setting

Nurses play an extremely important role in saving lives and caring for our Service members and their families around the world. In honor of these incredible professionals, each year the nation celebrates National Nurses Week between 6 May, National Nurses Day, and 12 May, the birthdate of celebrated nurse Florence Nightingale. We are grateful for our nurses and all nurses worldwide. Thank you for your service and sacrifice!

Recommended Content:

National Nurses Week | Nurses Week

Nurses Week 2021: Nurses continue to advance the MHS mission

Article
5/5/2021
Military health personnel securing a patient to the operating table

The Military Health System honors the commitment, dedication and contributions of the nursing profession during National Nurses Week May 6-12.

Recommended Content:

National Nurses Week | Nurses Week
<< < 1 2 3 4 > >> 
Showing results 1 - 15 Page 1 of 4

DHA Address: 7700 Arlington Boulevard | Suite 5101 | Falls Church, VA | 22042-5101

Some documents are presented in Portable Document Format (PDF). A PDF reader is required for viewing. Download a PDF Reader or learn more about PDFs.