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Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Unit Citation to Members of the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps

September 24, 2015

Last year, as Ebola spread in West Africa, I said that fighting this disease was more than a national security priority, it was a critical example of American leadership. These professionals from the U.S. Public Health Service were some of the Americans on the frontlines of that effort. And before you came in, I had the opportunity to award them with the Presidential Unit Citation.

Now, understand that this corps of public health professionals are on the front lines all the time. And when you think of some of the most difficult, challenging tragedies or public health challenges that we've experienced over the last several decades, these are the folks who've been there from the start. After 9/11, after hurricanes, after Sandy Hook, after Deepwater Horizon or the Boston Marathon bombing, they come in to help support, advise, and oftentimes provide direct treatment in some of the most difficult situations imaginable.

But this was a unique deployment by this unit. Like so many others, they signed up to leave their loved ones and head straight into the heart of the Ebola epidemic, understanding that there were significant risks that they themselves would be confronting as a consequence of helping others. Thanks to their skill, thanks to their courage and their dedication, they not only helped to keep the American people safe, they led a global response. It was not until they arrived that other countries were confident that they could send their own health workers in, because they knew that this outstanding group of individuals and health professionals were there on the job and would provide them the kind of support that could make their own efforts safe.

We're not yet at absolute zero when it comes to this Ebola epidemic that took place in West Africa, but we have turned the tide on the epidemic. The cases we now see are much more sporadic, and we have, as a consequence of the work that these individuals started—started to build the kind of public health infrastructure in many of these countries—they can prevent an outbreak in the future.

I want to thank Secretary Sylvia Burwell, Surgeon General Murthy, because they were critical in helping to move us to the next phase of the fight: transitioning from a military response to a civilian response. We're also now better prepared for disease outbreaks like Ebola here at home. Our health care professionals are better trained. Our screening processes have improved. Our hospitals are more capable with new protocols and new protective gear. None of this progress could have been made without America's public servants like these.

The troops who supported the global response, the CDC experts tracking cases, the HHS scientists testing vaccines, the USAID workers and PHS doctors and nurses who served directly in the field—all of these Americans, not just the ones in this room, but thousands of the Public Health Service individuals, the thousands more who helped support them, they made this progress possible.

His Holiness Pope Francis spoke today in Congress about the need for us to apply the Golden Rule and to have a sense of morality and common humanity at the center of our Government. Well, these are individuals who represent that spirit of that kind of selflessness that ends up helping the most vulnerable, the poorest, the people who are least capable of fending for themselves against invisible killers like Ebola. So I'm extraordinarily grateful to all of them.

It is a useful occasion for me to note that organizations like the Public Health Service's Commissioned Corps need support from Congress in order to continue to excel at their mission. And so I hope that Congress chooses to keep our Government open and operating so that heroes like this can keep working to extinguish disease and ignite hope wherever it is needed most. That's what America does. That's what these individuals represent. That's why I could not be more incredibly proud of them, but of the American people who support them.

Thank you. Good job. All right.

NOTE: The President spoke at 2:46 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White House.

Barack Obama, Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Unit Citation to Members of the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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