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Groups seek recognition at Native American museum veterans memorial

A view of the memorial that honors Native American veterans at the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall.
A view of the memorial that honors Native American veterans at the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall. (Alan Karchmer for the National Museum of the American Indian)

A group that represents Public Health Service officers who have assisted during natural disasters, in overseas fights against Ebola and recently on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic is seeking recognition on a veterans memorial at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, arguing its members were unfairly left out.

The Commissioned Officers Association of the U.S. Public Health Service alleges that when the design was completed years ago for the National Native American Veterans Memorial, the USPHS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps should have been included.

The memorial, which opened in November, includes the seals of the Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marine Corps. The lawsuit, filed in March in U.S. District Court in D.C., seeks to have the seals of the commissioned officers’ groups added.

Not being on the memorial makes public health service members who are Native American feel “marginalized, unimportant, disposable and forgotten,” said retired Navy Capt. Jacqueline Rychnovsky, who is also executive director of the Commissioned Officers Association of the U.S. Public Health Service.

A spokeswoman for the museum said it had no comment.

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About 280 Native Americans and Alaskan Natives serve in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. They make up about 6 percent of the corps and represent the highest percentage of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives of the other uniformed services, according to U.S. service statistics.

Public health service and NOAA corps members have a history of service dating to World War I. They serve as doctors, nurses, scientists and engineers in assignments overseas and on tribal reservations. Many have also cared for those sick with the coronavirus and administered the vaccine.

Rear Adm. Brandon Taylor, who has served in the USPHS for more than 23 years and is a member of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation in Oklahoma, said many Native American tribes view their “citizens who have served in the armed forces as warriors.”

“We may not carry weapons, but we fight,” Taylor said. “We are public health warriors. We fight in the silent war against disease, and we fight every day to promote, protect and advance the health and safety of our nation.” Not being recognized on the American Indian museum’s memorial, Taylor said, was “very disheartening.”

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The suit says the exclusion of Public Health Service and NOAA commissioned corps veterans reinforces a misconception that the two branches “are not ‘the real military,’ continuing the stigma” they say their members often face.

Rychnovsky, a member of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, said Native Americans who have served in the two corps “have earned the right to be acknowledged on the memorial alongside their sister services.” Not including them, she said, is “an egregious oversight and unequivocally discriminatory.”

She also said there is enough space at the memorial to add two more plaques.

Still, officials said, any changes to the memorial might not be easy.

The American Indian museum memorial was created through an act of legislation passed in 1994. It was meant to honor Native Americans, Native Hawaiians and Native Alaskans who served in the armed forces.

The memorial features a 12-foot, stainless steel circle balanced on a carved, stone drum. The circle is meant to represent “the hole in the sky where the creator lives,” according to Harvey Pratt, a Cheyenne and Arapaho member who designed the memorial. It includes plaques to honor the five armed forces.

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When the NMAI memorial legislation passed, the Public Health Service and NOAA corps weren’t specifically included in the legislation’s wording, officials said.

Kevin Gover, who was then director of the museum, wrote in a 2019 letter that the legislation to create the memorial mentions the five armed forces but “does not mention the Commissioned Corps.”

Officials with the Commissioned Corps said they filed the suit after letter-writing campaigns to congressional leaders, officials at the Smithsonian Institution and the museum.

In 1917, the Public Health Service was made part of the nation’s military forces during World War I, with members detailed to the Coast Guard, Navy and Army, according to the Military Coalition, which represents several military service groups. More than 600 of its officers served with the Coast Guard and some of them were on cutters that were “lost to enemy action” in World War II, according to the coalition.

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Members of the NOAA Corps also served in World War II in a variety of roles, including as artillery and reconnaissance surveyors, as well as engineers.

Rear Adm. Kevin Meeks, a member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma who served for 32 years in the Public Health Service, said not being included in the memorial was disheartening.

He wrote in a letter to museum officials: “We may not be an armed service, but we are on the front lines of protecting our country against disease and injury every day.”