By: LTJG Topiol, USPHS
The snowy mountain terrain passes beneath the massive CH-47 Chinook carrying us from Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak to the remote village of Ouzinkie (“YOU-zinc-E”). To my left is an Air Force dentist from California. To my right, an Army medic from Minnesota. In front of me is a massive pile of duffels and packs. I find a bit of leg room within the cargo in front of me while my overstuffed ruck weighs on my lap. The crisp Arctic air mixes with the scent of jet fuel as we begin our descent. On the ground, we’re excitedly greeted by local villagers with an armada of private vehicles that shuttle our team of 28 with all of our gear and medical supplies to the school that we’ll call home. Arctic Care 2022 has begun.
Part of the Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) program, Arctic Care combines military training requirements with the healthcare needs of the Native population of Kodiak Island, Alaska. IRT missions allow the military to replicate aspects of conducting joint services deployments to remote or austere environments, while simultaneously providing for the critical needs of underserved Americans.
If you aren’t familiar with the USPHS Commissioned Corps, don’t worry—you’re probably not alone. One of the smallest US uniformed services under the leadership of the Assistant Secretary for Health and the US Surgeon General, about 6,000 commissioned officers protect, promote, and advance the health and safety of our nation in a variety of health-related roles as physicians, nurses, scientists, engineers, and more.
An unarmed uniformed service in the US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service officers can be fully “militarized” by order of the president during times of war or national emergency. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the militarization of the Public Health Service during World War I with Public Health Service officers subsequently detailed to the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard. The USPHS Commissioned Corps was once again militarized during World War II with its Public Health Service officers supporting the Normandy landings on D-Day and operations in the Pacific Theater (including Iwo Jima). A total of 14 Public Health Service officers died in active duty during World War II, with two dying in captivity as Japanese prisoners of war.
As the only Shabbat-observist in the USPHS Commissioned Corps at this time, I knew upon joining that I would face some unique challenges. For instance, monthly drills are scheduled to span a Saturday Sunday weekend. Collaborating with chaplains from the Coast Guard and Army (USPHS Commissioned Corps doesn’t currently have a chaplaincy), I submitted a waiver request for religious accommodation to observe Shabbat. To the best of my knowledge, this was the very first formal Shabbat waiver request in USPHS Commissioned Corps history. The request went up the chain of command with a lot of support from my immediate commanders, which resulted in my religious accommodation request officially approved by none other than the Assistant Secretary for Health, Admiral Rachel Levine.
Even with a Shabbat waiver, Alaska would present religious challenges. My team’s area of operation consisted of two isolated villages accessible only by boat, helicopter, or light aircraft. Neither Ouzinkie (population 147) nor Larsen Bay (population 42) had a grocery store, so our food consisted almost entirely of MREs. Since these were not kosher, I packed a separate suitcase filled to the brim with kosher MREs, tuna packets, instant coffee, peanut butter, and various snacks. For Shabbat, I packed some “premium” MRE-style meals of my own with instant soups and mini bottles of grape juice for kiddush.
Our Air Force cooks were aware of my kosher dietary needs and went out of their way to let me know whenever they came across kosher items. Our team was fortunate enough to catch a large halibut and cod during an evening fishing trip graciously arranged by a local fisherman. With some creativity and collaboration in the kitchen, which included being invited to light the oven, I was able to enjoy a meal of fresh kosher fish together with the rest of the team!
Shabbat in Alaska was a bit different than what I was used to back home in Los Angeles, largely due to the difference in candle lighting and havdalah times. In Kodiak, the sun didn’t set until about 22:30 hours so havdalah didn’t occur until 23:30 hours on Saturday night. While this made it easy to complete a full day of clinic on Friday without worrying about running into Shabbat, it also meant that we were lights-out before it ended; havdalah would wait until Sunday morning.
Sporting a yarmulke and lugging around a bag of special food makes it hard to blend into a crowd. Not having grown up in a religious family (my wife and I became observant about 13 years ago), I recall many of the erroneous assumptions and beliefs that I personally held when I encountered a religious-looking Jew. Now, I make it a point in both my civilian and military careers to address the so-called elephant in the room head on. I speak openly and proudly of being Jewish, keeping the Sabbath, and about kosher dietary needs. I try to make people comfortable enough to ask any questions that come to mind about Judaism. There is a lot of misinformation about what it means to be an observant Jew, and I prefer that people feel comfortable enough to ask questions directly rather than believing rumors and outdated stereotypes.
Though challenging, my deployment to Kodiak as part of the Arctic Care mission was immensely rewarding. Our team treated over 200 patients, providing thousands of dollars worth of care to the villages of Ouzinkie and Larsen Bay. In all, the members of Arctic Care 2022 saw over 2,000 patients total and provided over $500,000 worth of no-cost health and veterinary services.
As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I know that I would not be alive today were it not for the sacrifices and dedication of the US uniformed service members that came before me. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to be able to give back to a country that has given me and my family so much —and to hopefully make a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name) in the process.
Originally published in the Purim 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.