Beasley Best Community of Caring

Nurses In The Military

Let's pay tribute to nurses in the military. More than 29,000 nurses report for duty each day in uniform of the Military Health Forces.  Nurses who wish to serve their country can be part of the Nurse Corps of any major military branch – Navy, Air Force, Army, and even NASA, assigned to healthcare facilities at military bases, military hospitals, and clinics here in the States or in foreign countries. “Our military and civilian nurses make a difference in the lives of those entrusted to our care, our nation’s heroes and their families… serving in military hospitals and clinics, and with operational units, on land, at sea, and in the air. Our nurses are clinicians, educators, scientists, and innovators. They are leading hospitals and clinics and serving in every role in between,” said Dr. Kristen Atterbury, retired U.S. Navy Nurse Corps captain and newly named chief nursing officer at the Defense Health Agency, before this month’s ceremony honoring our military nurses.   They were not always so appreciated or welcomed by the military.  Before the 20th century, nurses were volunteers or conscripted as needed from the mothers, wives and sisters of the troops.  In 1776, the Continental Army called for nurses to care for its wounded and sick soldiers, to tend to the soldiers, wash and scrub the floors and linens, and prepare their food.  There were no titles, no direct pay, and no contracts for their services.   After the revolution, there was little need for nurses until the Civil War, when the military was overwhelmed by casualties, both wounded and sick.  Over 3,000 women and about 500 men then volunteered to dress wounds, feed, bathe, and comfort soldiers on battlefields and hospitals across the country.    Famous names among these volunteers included famed abolitionist, activist and leader of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) and poet and journalist Walt Whitman (1819-1892).  Tubman volunteered as a nurse to support the Union cause and help refugees in the camps in Port Royal, South Carolina, in 1862, preparing natural remedies and caring for soldiers suffering from dysentery and infectious diseases and receiving government rations for her services. She would leave nursing to become a scout and spy, going on to be the first US woman in history to lead an armed military raid.  Whitman was a clerk in Washington, DC whose experience looking for a wounded brother moved him to volunteer as a Union nurse.  He chronicled his experiences in a newspaper article, "The Great Army of the Sick," and 12 years later, in a book called Memoranda During the War. Sarah Emma Edmonds (1841-1898) answered the call for Union enlisters as "Private Franklin Flint Thompson," a male nurse.  "Franklin" served the 2nd Michigan Volunteers Hospital Unit as a nurse until the need for intelligence operatives called her to volunteer as a spy.  Frank crossed enemy lines back and forth as a master of disguise, becoming a black man, a female Irish peddler, a black nanny, a young man, and other personas before she was downed by malaria.  Once recovered, she discovered the Army had declared her male identity a deserter!  With Franklin no longer an option, she returned to D.C. and worked as a nurse until the end of the war. "Private Frank Thompson" wrote of her escapades in her best-seller, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army.  She was successful in clearing her name and was granted an honorable discharge and a monthly veteran's pension.  It wasn’t until after the Spanish-American War in 1898 that nursing became a sanctioned, permanent part of the US military.  When thousands of soldiers were struck down by yellow fever, malaria, and other tropical diseases, fifteen hundred contract nurses helped to turn the tide.  Anna Caroline Maxwell (1851 – 1929), the "American Florence Nightingale," not only cared for the wounded and trained nurses for battlefield care, she saved thousands of soldiers through her work to improve the sanitary conditions of the military hospitals.  An academic nurse, she created a nursing program for New York City's Presbyterian Hospital and its partner school, which is now known as Columbia University, where she developed a 5-year nursing diploma as well as a Bachelor of Science Degree.  When the Spanish-American War broke, Maxwell's nursing mastery and organizational skills became vital.  Despite the spread of typhoid, malaria and measles, only 67 lives were lost under her watch, of the thousand soldiers under her supervision.  Acknowledging her accomplishments, Congress finally recognized the value of nurses in the military and established the Army Nurse Corps in 1901.  Already in her mid-sixties, Maxwell served in the military during the First World War through the Red Cross. By 1920, nurses were granted military ranks of Second Lieutenant to Major with the right to wear the insignia of their rank, although they would be addressed as "Miss" and their pay was about half that of a male officer of the same rank. Just as before, their numbers were low – until they were needed.     When the US entered World War I, there were only 403 Army nurses on active duty, the number swelling to 21,460 officers, with 10,000 serving overseas.    African-American nurses were also admitted to the Corps for the first time.  Despite the growing numbers of Black professional nurses in the states, they were not allowed to join the Army Nurse Corps and the American Red Cross. It wasn’t until the last months of the war, during the influenza pandemic of 1918, that 18 African American nurses were accepted of the 1,800 certified to join.  Stationed at Camp Sherman, Ohio, and Camp Grant, Illinois, none of these nurses qualified for benefits or pensions because they did not technically serve in wartime.  It wasn’t until after the armistice was signed that these nurses could serve in the Army Nurse Corps.  By the end of the war, it’s estimated that one-third of all American nurses had served in the Army, primarily at bases, evacuations and mobile surgical hospitals.  Now a permanent part of the military, by the 1930s, they were spreading out from general duties to applying for anesthesia, psychiatric, and other nursing postgraduate courses with full pay and allowances. Those were great advances, but those advances did not include the Black nurses.  While they were admitted to the Army Nurse Corps, they were limited by strict quotas and totally refused admittance to the U.S. Navy. Mabel Keaton Staupers  (1890 -1989) a Caribbean-American nurse, was the key to eliminating segregation in the Armed Forces Nurse Corps during World War II.  Already a noted activist, she helped found the Harlem Committee of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association and was the executive secretary of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), which helped Black nurses to gain unrestricted membership in state and national nursing organizations.  When World War II saw the need for more nurses, Staupers enlisted the help of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and orchestrated a nationwide letter-writing campaign to convince the President and the War department of the need for Black nurses.   Thanks in part to these efforts, the US did not have to draft nurses in World War II.   Lucile Petry Leone (1902 – 1999), the first woman and the first nurse to be appointed as Assistant Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service, was the founding director of the Cadet Nurse Corps in 1943.  Another renowned educator, she was "on loan" to the Public Health Service as a consultant when Congress created the Corps to answer the severe nursing shortages.  Proposed as the "Victory Nurse Corps,"  approximately 132,000 women were admitted to the accelerated education program, pledging  to "engage in essential nursing, military or civilian, for the duration of the war." In return, the government paid all tuition fees, room and board, a monthly stipend of up to $30, and a uniform by fashion designer Molly Parnis.  Petry continued to serve after the war, her rank the equivalent of Brigadier General.  In 1948, she was a delegate to the first assembly of the World Health Organization.  Brigadier General Hazel W. Johnson-Brown (1927-2011) worked her way through the ranks to attain her promotion, the first Black woman to do so.  At first, she was refused entry to her local nursing school because she was Black, she moved to New York for her training and enlisted in the Army, where she earned multiple promotions. She became director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing, served as chief nurse of the Army hospital in Seoul, and commanded the Army Nurse Corps.   The most Decorated Woman in the US Military was Col. Ruby Bradley (1907 to 2002) of the Army Nurse Corps, she received 34 medals and citations of bravery for her military service during World War II and the Korean War.   Her many awards over three decades of service included Legion of Merit Medals, Bronze Stars, Presidential Emblems, the WWII Victory Medal, a U.N. Service Medal, and the Florence Nightingale Medal. A surgical nurse, Bradley was assigned to Camp John Hay, Philippines, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  Captured by the enemy forces, Bradley and her "Angels in Fatigues," cared for the other captives and smuggled medical supplies into the POW camp during their three-year experience.  She returned to the battlefield as chief nurse of the Eighth Army during the Korean War, responsible for 500 Army Nurses all over Korea and facing danger from enemy fire and explosives daily.  On November 11, 1993, the Vietnam Women's Memorial was dedicated at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., following years of campaigning for recognition by Captain Diane Carlson Evans, ANC RVN (1946), and the Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation.    Diane Carlson Evans fought for the honor of the women who bravely served side by side with male soldiers in the Vietnam War era -- 11,000 of them who served in Vietnam, while 265,000 others served from home during the war.   Evans also served, enlisting in the Army Nurse Corps after her nursing school graduation. At 21, she was sent to the Vietnam War as a surgical nurse in the surgical and burn unit of the 36th Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau and the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku. Including her year in Vietnam, she completed six years in the Army Nurse Corps.   Although the Vietnam Veterans Memorial lists the names of eight women nurses who died in Vietnam, Evans believed its statue of three fighting men did not properly acknowledge the women who served.  She founded the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project to not only create the memorial but also to identify the women who served, address their particular needs, and educate us all about the service of women during the Vietnam war.  Think a military career is for you?  The Department of Defense has information about medical career paths in the armed forces, from full-time to the Reserves and the National Guard. Today, military nurses share much of the same duties as civilian nurses, treating patients and promoting their well-being, but they are doing it from facilities either at home or in foreign countries, prepared to deal with the demands of working in war conditions.  As a reward for this sacrifice and dedication, a military career also comes with access to benefits, education, nursing student loan repayment options, the opportunity to rise in rank, and the opportunity to serve their country while honoring their calling.