The Army Nurse Corps.
In the U.S., the need for nurses was recognized as early as 1775 when General Washington requested that the fledging U.S. government send nurses and matrons to care for injured Revolutionary War soldiers. Thankfully, such assistance wasn’t limited to behind-the-lines facilities. For example, take volunteer Molly Pitcher who carried water under fire to help keep her husband’s artillery gunners hydrated.
By the time the Civil War erupted, nursing support had become more official.
According to the Army Nurse Corps website, “Approximately 6,000 women performed nursing duties for the federal forces…often performing their humanitarian service close to the fighting front or on the battlefields themselves.” One of the most famous personalities from this time, was Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.
The Spanish American War in 1898 proved to be one of the deadlier arenas due to typhoid and yellow fever contagions. While less than 400 American soldiers were killed in combat during this war, more than 2,000 contracted yellow fever during the campaign.
Among the nurses, fifteen died from typhoid, one died from yellow fever.
In February, 1901, the Nurse Corps finally became permanently attached to the Army Medical Department, eventually offering over 12,000 active duty nurses for the World War I battlefield hospitals.
However, by the time the U.S. entered World War II, the number of active duty nurses had dropped to 7,000. Yet it took only six months before these numbers jumped back up to their original WWI levels, eventually reaching 57,000 active service nurses by the time the conflict ended.
But this war was different. Not only did Army nurses patch up wounded soldiers, they also experienced both the horrors of working under direct enemy fire and POW concentration camps.
A similar experience followed during the Korean War.
In Korea, nurses mostly served in Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (M.A.S.H.) located close to the front lines. On occasion, these military exploits from the immortal and glamourized M.A.S.H. movie and TV show episodes, can still be seen on late night television.
Hollywood had a little more trouble dressing up Vietnam.
While TV producers may have overlooked the thousands of nurses serving in Vietnam from 1962 to 1973, The Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation stepped into the breach with a poignant sculpture remembering those who had served. The statue is located near the Vietnam Wall Memorial in Washington, D.C..
In today’s far-flung conflicts, the need for well-trained military medical personnel is no less critical than it was back in George Washington’s day. However, unlike Revolutionary War times, the risks to nurses and combat medics are now so much greater.