WASHINGTON - It was while listening to public radio during an evening commute in June 2018 that James Currie first learned the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) had selected a finalist to design a new Native American Veterans Memorial.
Out of more than 400 candidates, NMAI selected Cheyenne Arapahoe artist Harvey Pratt, a Vietnam veteran and renowned former forensic artist.
The winning design, “The Warrior Wheel of Honor” would feature a stainless steel wheel poised upright above a drum-shaped stone structure bearing cast bronze seals of the five U.S. military services—the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy.
“And as soon as I heard that, I said, ‘Okay, we’ve got a problem,’” said Currie, a retired Army Colonel, who today heads the Commissioned Officers Association of the U.S. Public Health Service and its affiliate, the Commissioned Officers Foundation for the Advancement of Public Health.
The problem, he said, is that the planned memorial fails to acknowledge two federal uniformed services: the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (USPHS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps (NOAA), both of which include Native American officers.
It is an all-too common oversight, according to Currie: “Nobody knows we exist.”
‘Dinosaurs and birds’
Most Americans lump all service members into one category, using the terms military, armed forces and uniformed services interchangeably.
But it turns out they are wrong.
The U.S. has four military services—the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy.
It also has five armed forces, the above four, plus the Coast Guard.
In addition, the U.S. has seven uniformed services—all of the above, plus the USPHS Commissioned Corps, part of the Department of Health, whose broad mission is to safeguard national health, and the NOAA Commissioned Corps, overseen by the Commerce Department, and charged with protecting the environment and climate.
Officers of both corps are commissioned, which means that just like their military counterparts, they cannot resign until they have finished their terms of service. They also wear uniforms but don’t carry weapons—that is, unless the President chooses to militarize them, as President Harry Truman did during World War II and the Korean Conflict, caring for the wounded, conducting land surveys, even forecasting weather for military operations.
“They have participated in every war our country has had since 1898,” said Currie. “They have been out there saving lives on the battlefield, and, as I wrote in a recent op-ed in Military.com, the Smithsonian is really good at identifying dinosaurs and obscure birds. But let the VA [U.S. Veterans Administration] identify the veterans.”
Congress may decide
After hearing the radio broadcast, Currie wrote letters to NMAI, urging the museum to add two more official seals to the memorial.
“At first we were confident that if we could bring this to the Smithsonian’s attention, they would correct it immediately,” he said. “But the Smithsonian answered, ‘Well, you all don’t carry weapons and you are not trained in arms; therefore, we are not going to be allowed to include you.”
The confusion is understandable. The 1994 Native American Veterans’ Memorial Establishment Act authorizing the memorial refers only to the “Armed Forces of the United States.”
A museum spokesman said NMAI gave interested parties every opportunity to weigh in on the project, holding 35 community consultations with tribes and tribal groups across the country.
But she suggested to VOA the museum might revisit the issue.
“The Smithsonian has reached out to the chair and ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources for clarification on the language in the legislation,” NMAI spokesperson Becky Haberacker said via email. “We are awaiting their response.”
An estimated 800 Native Americans currently serve in the USPHS Commissioned Corps; NOAA was unable to furnish any numbers, nor has it taken a public position on this issue.
“The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps generally supports efforts to include the NOAA Corps and its predecessors in all appropriate venues and instances where the nation's uniformed service members and veterans are recognized,” NOAA Commissioned Corps spokesman David L. Hall said via email.
Meanwhile, the winning designer, artist and Vietnam veteran Harvey Pratt, said the decision about which uniformed groups would be honored was not “his call.”
He and his design team in Oklahoma are now constructing the $15 million memorial, set to open in Washington, D.C., in 2020.
“It makes no difference [to me],” he said via Facebook Messenger. “We made room for the unknown.”