October 9, 2019
Lieutenant Courtney Wood (left) at her Officer Basic Course graduation on February 28, 2018, with Captain Brian Lewis, Chief Professional Officer for the Medical Category for the U.S. Public Health Service.

Have you heard of the Commissioned Corps of the United States Public Health Service (USPHS)? It’s one of the United States’ seven uniformed services and has existed for more than 200 years. During those two centuries, an elite team of 6,500 men and women in health care professions served to protect our nation’s public health.

Often called a “best kept secret,” the USPHS Commissioned Corps offers audiologists and speech-language pathologists (SLPs) a way to serve in uniform while protecting, promoting, and advancing the health and safety of the nation.

As a member of the USPHS, I’ve been an SLP in uniform for a little more than a year. My duties vary greatly depending on which federal agency I serve during each assignment. USPHS officers serve in a number of agencies, many falling under the Department of Health and Human Services. Some of these agencies include the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the Food and Drug Administration, Indian Health Service, the National Institutes of Health, as well as the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.

As a USPHS officer, I also deploy nationally or internationally in support of disasters or humanitarian missions.

Getting into uniform

My interest in the USPHS Commissioned Corps grew from a desire to serve in uniform as an SLP. Before joining, I worked in a variety of settings, such as higher education, home health care, inpatient care, the public schools, outpatient care, and acute trauma care. Ultimately, I wanted to invest my efforts in serving my country.

After exhaustive research, I learned most branches of the armed services offered few billets for speech-language pathologists—or audiologists—and I also would soon age out of the opportunity to serve at all.

Not giving up, I discovered the USPHS Commissioned Corps when doing even more research. I immediately knew this fit everything I wanted to accomplish as an SLP in uniform. I waded through the application process—it took me 18 months, but absolutely worth it—and commissioned as a lieutenant in 2018.

This career choice allows me to cultivate my desire to serve my country in ways I never imagined. With a wide variety of opportunities available in different agencies, I can navigate my career toward the mission of a specific agency or focus on a clinical, research, or administrative role.

Serving in uniform

My first duty station as a uniformed officer was as a clinical SLP with Indian Health Services. I thrived in this challenging and rewarding role addressing the needs of underserved populations and promoting better speech-language awareness and skills. I also used my experiences to advocate with government agencies for a variety of patient needs, as well as those of their families.

A few of my numerous and varied responsibilities included patient monitoring and family education at a semi-annual cleft-palate clinic, collecting book contributions from local libraries and distributing them to families and patients needing literacy resources, promoting cognitive and dysphagia care for adult patients, and educating fellow medical professionals about my role as an SLP on a medical team. In addition, I presented and modeled speech-language developmental milestones to high school students who were also parents. I loved everything I did!

My second clinical assignment began this past summer. I now serve soldiers with traumatic brain injury at a military medical treatment facility in Colorado. In this role, I hope to advocate for more audiologists and speech-language pathologists in the military. Accomplishing this goal will involve educating my superiors and fellow service members about our professional services and how we promote the health of soldiers and their families.

Check out the USPHS Commissioned Corps for yourself or ask me questions in the comments section below.

Courtney Wood, MEd, CCC-SLP, serves as a lieutenant in the USPHS Commissioned Corps.  [email protected]

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