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Nursing History: The First Army Nurse Corps

On February 2, 1901, the United States Congress authorized the first Army Nurse Corps, making nurses a permanent part of the Army. Before this time, though, nurses had always been a strong and necessary presence during wartime, from the Revolutionary War when General Washington requested nurses to tend his wounded and sick soldiers, to the Civil War, when nursing pioneers Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton led the way for nurses on the frontlines of battle.

Establishment of the Army Nurse Corps

Under the Army Reorganization Act passed by Congress in 1901, nurses finally became a permanent corps of the Medical Department. Although they were not commissioned as officers, they were appointed to the regular army for a three-year period and could renew their service as long as they had a solid record of conduct, health and efficiency. Under this act, the Surgeon General kept a list of qualified nurses willing to serve in the event of an emergency, thus forming the first Reserve Corps of women.

World War I

20,000 RNs were recruited by the military to serve during World War I. These women worked in dozens of military hospitals and ambulance companies that operated on the Western Front. Over half of the nurses served overseas and more than 5,000 were enrolled in the Army’s new School of Nursing. While none of the World War I nurses worked on the front lines or were killed in action, several hundred died from disease and other causes.

World War II

When World War II began, the Army Nurse Corps numbered fewer than 7,000 women, but this number grew to more than 12,000 within the next six months. The needs of this war were more than double those of World War I, and hundreds of military hospitals were built to accommodate the anticipated flow of casualties from the over 8 million U.S. soldiers and airmen. This expansion of nurses, in cooperation with the Red Cross, took only unmarried women ages 22-30 who had been trained as RNs at civilian schools.

WWII nurses faced more combat danger than WWI nurses. They were injured and killed by enemy fire, spent long periods of time behind enemy lines in concentration camps, and became POWs of the Japanese. Toward the end of the war, on February 26, 1944, Congress passed a bill granting Army and Navy nurses military rank. By the end of WWII, nurses in the Army and Army Air Forces numbered around 65,000. During WWII, many medical advances were made in medicines and techniques, and survival rates for the wounded increased significantly.

Korea and Vietnam

As they had in previous wars, nurses continued to treat the wounded during the Korean and Vietnam wars. In Korea, they staffed the MASH units and worked in emplaced hospitals in Korea and Japan. They were on the battlefields during conflict and were instrumental in treating injured service members within minutes or hours of becoming wounded.

Vietnam brought nurses to the major Army hospitals in South East Asia, and was the first war in which male nurses were brought into the combat theater. This was also the first war where numerous Army nurses faced enemy fire and worked at hospitals under assault.

Throughout history, nurses have made outstanding contributions during times of war. And today, more than ever, military nurses are well-equipped and educated to provide assistance and life-saving care to our wounded and sick soldiers.

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