Tuesday, February 1, 2011

There's a Long, Long Trail a-Winding

Sharon Wildwind

On February 2, 1901 the U. S. Army Nurse Corps became the first U. S. military nurse corps. The Navy Nurse Corps was founded seven years later and the Air Force Nurse Corps forty-eight years later, with the transition from the Army Air Corps to the United States Air Force. Tomorrow marks the 110th anniversary of formal organization of Army Nurses into their own military unit.

It hasn’t been an easy hundred and ten years.

There were problems of rank. Prior to 1901, military nurses were volunteers, contract workers, or members of religious orders. When the Nurse Corps was established, there was a huge reason not to commission the nurses. It was illegal because the Corps was specifically for women and, by federal law, women could not legally hold an Army commission. There was also the popular notion that nurses were handmaidens to the doctor and it wouldn’t do to give them ideas that they were equal to doctors, who did hold commissions.

The Army’s solution was relative rank, meaning that the nurse might be called Lieutenant, Captain, Major, etc. but she would receive less pay and status than a male officer of corresponding rank. In other words she was paid as a woman and a nurse, not as an officer. It wasn’t until 1947 that Nurse Corps members achieved real rank.

Incidentally, when I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the late 1960s, my commissioning order read that by an Act of Congress I was now “an officer and a gentleman.”

There were also problems of gender. The charter specified a female Corps. Men who had graduated from nursing schools were allowed to join the Army as corpsmen, but not as nurses. By the time World War II came along, they had been granted the rank of Technical Sergeant, which was an enlisted rank. It took the introduction of several federal bills before President Eisenhower, in 1955, signed the Bolton Act, which provided commissions for qualified men with nursing degrees and diplomas.

There was also the problem of image. Quick, what are your first reactions to the words Army Nurse?

If you thought of “duty,” “country,” or “highly professional,” more power to you. For a lot of people, the reactions would have been “martinet,” “second-class nurse,” or “the morals of an alley cat.” Sad, but true. Military nurses have always had to fight against negative stereotypes that somehow set them apart, made them different and less than their civilian counterparts. A lot of the time there has been no middle ground. The Army Nurse was either up on a pedestal or down in the gutter. Either one of those is a tough place to be.

Another misconception is that all military nursing is combat-related. While some of the finest trauma nurses in the world are military nurses, that’s not the whole story. Disease has always killed more soldiers than wounds. During World War I, no army nurse died from wounds, but over 200 died from influenza and influenza-related pneumonia, contracted by nursing patients during the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. A lot of military are specialists in communicable disease nursing.

Where there are soldiers, there are families.

Pick a civilian nursing speciality and you’ll find there is a corresponding military speciality. Some of the finest midwives are military nurses. And pediatric nurses. Public health nurses. Industrial nurses. Researchers. Mental health specialists. Nurse practitioners. Cardiac nurses. Diabetic nurses. Dialysis nurses. They’re all wearing a uniform.

Those of us who have been military nurses eventually give up the uniform, but a lot of us never give up the experience. And I don’t think we’d have it any other way.

Quote for the week
Help me to offer hope and cheer in the hearts of men, [women], and my country, for their faith inspires me to give the world and nursing my best.
~ Colonel Mildred Irene Clark, 1956

I doubt that Colonel Clark would object one bit to the word I’ve inserted. After all, Army Nurses have always moved with the times.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Brava to you and all the other military nurses, Sharon. I have a confession to make: What did I first think of when you said "Army Nurse"? Cherry Ames. I even remember she worked with a corpsman named Bunce--the only reason I recognized the word in your post.

Sharon Wildwind said...

Well, Liz, Cherry Ames is a good thing to think about. I had the complete collection, at least as far as those published up to the time I went to nursing school. Gave them all to my local library.

Martha said...

This was a lovely post. Thank you.

Diane said...

Sharon, I was a military brat. One of my fellow brat classmates became an Army nurse as soon as she got her degree from Duke (this would have been about 1968). Sharon 'Sam' Stanley-Alden. Sam's first pcs was Vietnam (one of her fellow nurses there wrote the book the 'China Beach' tv series was based on). She had to get out when she had her children - military law there. Went back in when it was okayed, got out again later. Did some work for NIH/CDC, then University nurse in West VA. Got bored, went back in. She's now a Col., stationed in Germany in charge of therapy for wounded soldiers until she retires.

Sam is an awesome person, smart, upbeat and I think the one person I know that I admire totally. And I would trust her medical opinion over any doctor I have ever known.

She once said something re not moving all the time that I find true. When you get that restless urge to move (and it is in our blood and our souls), you rearrange the furniture.

Leslie Budewitz said...

"Army Nurse" reminds me of my lovely Aunt Doris -- one of the first nurses and kindest people I ever knew. She went into the nursing corps in 1942, right out of high school -- like a lot of young people then, with the war raging, she was impatient to get involved, so she didn't want to wait for my mother, a year younger, who was too shy to go in on her own. And like many Army nurses, she married a man she met in the service.

Sharon Wildwind said...

Leslie and Diane, Thanks for sharing your stories. There are a lot of still-serving and ex- Army Nurses out there.