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Remarks at the 47th Anniversary of the Founding of University Services University

Eric D. Hargan
USU students, faculty, and staff
September 20, 2019
Uniformed Services University, Bethesda, MD

Cooperation between the military and medical communities, epitomized by your work here at USU, goes back to the fact that we share a common purpose: protecting life and saving lives.

As Prepared for Delivery

Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you very much for welcoming me here today.

It is an honor to represent Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and all of HHS at this ceremony, and to offer our congratulations on the 47th anniversary of the Uniformed Services University.

As one of the nation’s senior public health officials, I want to express our deep gratitude to everyone at USU whose work has contributed and will contribute to HHS’s mission, improving the health and well-being of all Americans.

Of course, many graduates of USU also have another particular, but related, obligation: caring for those who serve our country and thereby protecting our national security.

These two missions—health and defense—are not often associated in Americans’ minds.

But many of you know very well how important health services and biomedical science are to keeping our country safe, and I can assure you that the way HHS leaders, including Secretary Azar and myself, have a deep appreciation for how these missions can be intertwined.

The relationship between the federal government’s public health work and the military goes all the way back to the founding of our country, and the early roots of both HHS and our armed services.

The Constitution doesn’t explicitly mention a health department, but it does mention authorizing a navy, to protect our merchant ships. And once a navy has been established, some Americans join the navy or the merchant marine, as seamen, and then some of them become sick or disabled in the line of duty.

Then, Congress realize that they need to take care of these sailors, they pass an “Act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen,” as they did in 1792, creating a Marine Hospital Service to take care of Navy sailors and Merchant Mariners. That Marine Hospital Service was the institution that later became the U.S. Public Health Service, and is the earliest antecedent of today’s U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Further along in history, when Congress created the first National Board of Health in the late 19th century, they provided that its members include one representative each from the Navy, the Army, and the Marine Hospital Service.

Some important HHS institutions that you’re familiar with today trace their roots to military needs, as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, grew out of an effort to control malaria in the South, where the military needed to drill troops in advance of World War II—literally, the first project of the institution that became the CDC was called “Malaria Control in War Areas.”

All of that history underscores a simple truth: We can’t keep our country safe without keeping our people healthy, and without recognizing that not just military threats, but also biological ones, can threaten our national security.

Working at the intersection of those concerns is just one reason why USU is such an important institution.

Today, I just want to highlight a couple important ways that the armed forces and HHS work together to protect our country and improve health, and the role that USU plays in that.

The first example of collaboration I’ll mention is humanitarian and medical work that involves both HHS personnel and members of the armed forces, and the other is work we do together on biomedical research, to protect Americans and people around the world.

When natural disasters strike the United States and our territories, HHS leads the public health and medical response. Providing the right medical care and public health response on the ground, however, is sometimes impossible without close collaboration with the U.S. military. We need military helicopters, for instance, to transfer Disaster Medical Assistance Teams of civilian doctors to provider care where they’re needed.

Especially during Hurricane Maria in 2017, HHS personnel and armed forces personnel worked hand-in-hand to meet the needs of our fellow Americans. In fact, Hurricane Maria spurred the largest-ever deployment of military medical capabilities for a disaster response in the United States, including an Area Support Medical Company, the USNS Comfort, an Army Combat Support Hospital, and an Air Force Expeditionary Medical Support Hospital, and it was one of the largest deployments of HHS emergency resources in history, too.

I believe it is in part thanks to the close working relationship between the military and our health responders that the medical and public health response to disasters has come to be seen as an area of excellence within the larger federal emergency response enterprise.

But it’s not just in disaster situations that the Pentagon and HHS come together—we work with each other to boost preparedness, too. Our Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Reponse, for instance, or ASPR, provides training to communities around the country about medical responses to emergencies. As it happens, our current ASPR, Assistant Secretary Bob Kadlec, is a proud graduate of USU, where he received his medical degree and an MPH.

One of these ASPR training programs, the Counter-Narcotics and Terrorism Operational Medical Support, or CONTOMS, came out of research work done at USU to improve care for combat casualties. Drawing on the lessons of USU researchers who looked at how to respond to combat injuries, the program teaches emergency responders how to care for injured law enforcement personnel in emergencies, whether that’s a terrorist attack, a drug raid, or some other event.

USU and HHS have worked together to expand our knowledge of how to save lives in so many ways beyond training. The military and HHS have a shared interest in understanding health threats that may have national security implications: often categorized as chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats, or CBRN.

The emergency response arm of HHS that I just mentioned, ASPR, is home to an institution HHS created to develop countermeasures for these threats, known as the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA—essentially the health version of DOD’s DARPA.

BARDA has a close working relationship with our health and biomedical counterparts in the armed services, and it has played a crucial role in moving from basic research through to countermeasures that are FDA-approved and purchased for our Strategic National Stockpile.

Some of the important foundational work on infectious disease threats comes out of U.S. military institutions, especially those overseas. Last year, I visited one such institution in Thailand, the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences, or AFRIMS.

As an aside, one of the great things about giving a speech to a military audience is that you can be even more shameless about throwing out acronyms than you are when talking to healthcare experts.

AFRIMS carries out research on infectious diseases that threaten the warfighter which, just like during World War II, still includes malaria. It also includes many other diseases that threaten both our personnel and millions of people throughout developing countries in southeast Asia, like Japanese encephalitis. It was fascinating to see the work being done there, which includes research with monkeys and insects.

AFRIMS is currently run by a former USU professor, Colonel Robert O’Connell, who got to take me on a tour of the institution, including their insectarium and monkey colony.

We at HHS cooperate directly with military health researchers in a variety of ways.

Earlier this year, for instance, HHS’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, awarded a grant to researchers at USU and other partner institutions to advance treatments for forms of the Nipah virus, which was recently identified by the World Health Organization as a virus with epidemic potential that needed further R&D.

If you’re not a doctor and are scratching your head because you have no idea what the Nipah virus even is, well, that’s because USU and HHS are working hard to keep it that way.

In the coming years, I believe the relationships between HHS, USU, and the larger military medical community are only going to deepen and strengthen.

These relationships have been absolutely essential to developing protections against infectious diseases and other biological threats, and those threats are only growing in today’s world.

Cooperation between the military and medical communities, epitomized by your work here at USU, goes back to the fact that we share a common purpose: protecting life and saving lives.

Much of the work we do at HHS would not be possible without the expertise and capabilities provided by the military, and certainly, we could not enjoy the remarkable fruits of American prosperity, and the health that brings, without the protection of American servicemen and women.

That is very well-understood by Secretary Azar and myself, and we’re grateful for the close partnerships we’ve built between the military and HHS.

So I want to close by thanking all of you here today, for your devotion to keeping our country safe, to protecting and healing those who serve us, and to improving the health and well-being of all Americans.

We at HHS are proud to call you partners, and I look forward to many more years of collaboration together.

Content created by Speechwriting and Editorial Division 
Content last reviewed on September 23, 2019