Different uniform, but same mission to serve

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Al -- Many may stop and ask why Lt. Cmdr. Tenaya Chambers, 42nd Medical Group mental health flight commander, still wears a battle dress uniform, and she is more than happy to explain her unique role as a U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps officer and her organization's partnership with the Department of Defense.

"A lot of people have never heard of the Public Health Service because we are such a small corps," Chambers said. "So when people see BDUs, which became obsolete in other services a few years ago, they have to stop me and ask. That affords me the perfect opportunity to tell them about the PHS."

A sister service to the Air Force with 6,500 members, the PHS, overseen by Surgeon General of the United States Vice Adm. Regina Benjamin, became commissioned in 1889 and is one of seven uniformed services. However, it is not an armed service, and Chambers' capacity is strictly to provide medical services.

"Essentially, we have a medical mission," said Chambers. "We also deploy for natural disasters or national epidemics. For instance, we provided relief services following hurricane Katrina and in response to the earthquake in Haiti."

Chambers' specialty is in mental health, although the PHS includes most medical professions from general physicians, dentists, behavioral health and dieticians to therapists, pharmacists and even veterinarians.

One of the unique characteristics of PHS members is their ability to choose to work for branches of the DOD or any of several different United States governmental agencies. The Department of Health and Human Services made an agreement with the DOD to allow PHS to provide more behavioral health services for military members, veterans and their families.

Lt. Col. Chrystal Henderson, commander of the 42nd Medical Operations Squadron, learned of the collaboration after she arrived at Maxwell and appreciates the contributions the PHS offers to the clinic's mission.

"This agreement allows us to increase our capacity for services, which would otherwise not be available," said Henderson. "Having a PHS officer on staff has freed our Air Force providers' schedules more, which allows them to focus on outreach programs and services installation wide."

PHS officers also can apply for positions at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Quality, the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and others.

As a PHS officer, working for the DOD requires a three-year commitment, while a minimum of two years is required for other federal agency jobs. Members may either renew their positions for one year or another complete term or they may decide to relocate to another agency.

One reason Chambers enjoys working for the PHS is the flexibility it affords without disrupting any benefits, leave or pay she has accrued, especially as a parent. "The good thing about the Public Health Service is it has the best of both worlds," she said.

"You get to pretty much choose where you go and choose how long you stay as long as you fulfill your minimum requirement. It's highly desirable for someone with a family."

Also, deployments for PHS members are voluntary. However, members may need to respond to relief efforts at any time around the globe.

As a clinical psychologist prior to joining the PHS, Chambers treated inmates for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. She became interested in the PHS after working alongside several members as they provided relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina victims in 2005.

Chambers joined the PHS in December 2009 shortly after the memorandum of agreement between the HHS and the DOD was signed. Maxwell Air Force Base was her first duty station working with the 42nd Medical Group where she is currently the mental health flight commander.

As the flight commander, she oversees nine key programs, including the Family Advocacy Program, the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment program, the Behavioral Health clinic and Educational and Development Services.

Chambers has enjoyed her experience working alongside the DOD and in July will be staying within the military, transferring to Fort Benning Columbus, Ga. There, she will begin developing a holistic health program for the Army Rangers and their families.

Working for the PHS keeps life and work interesting, said Chambers. "It really breaks up the monotony to be able to go from one organization to another," she said. "It allows me to do a 20-year career and feel like I have been exposed to a lot of different things. There is never a dull moment."