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Memorial Day, Remembering Those Who Served

Memorial Day, Remembering Those Who Served

Monday, May 29, marks Memorial Day, a federal holiday dedicated to honoring U.S. military personnel who passed away in the line of duty. Among those who will be remembered are the nurses and allied health professionals who served bravely. Since the Revolutionary War, nurses have been on the frontlines tending to the wounded and contributing to the country’s defense. They often worked for little or no pay in hazardous conditions without rank or recognition. Their contributions not only assisted the war effort but also advanced medical care and treatment.


Revolutionary Start

The original wartime nurses were the wives, mothers, and sisters of the men called to duty. These women had little to no medical training or experience. However, it didn’t take long for their value to be recognized. General George Washington signed a resolution in 1775, allotting a $2 payment per month for every nurse. That pay was doubled to $4 just a year later. After the Civil War, the New England Hospital for Women and Children became the first American school to start a formal nurse training program, graduating the first trained nurse, Linda Richards, in 1873 and the first African American trained nurse, Mary Eliza Mahoney, in 1879.


Wartime Medical Advancements
Nurse tends to battlefield injury. Courtesy of the U.S. Archives.

The American Red Cross recruited over 22,000 professionally trained female nurses to serve in the U.S. Army during World War I, nearly half of whom served near the Western Front. An estimated 1,500 nurses from multiple countries were killed during World War I, including Edith Cavell, a British Red Cross nurse who pioneered new nursing techniques in Belgium. Cavell was executed by the German army for helping Allied soldiers escape. However, Cavell and others’ sacrifices were not made in vain. WWI brought many changes and advancements, including the importance of cleanliness to reduce infection and save lives, awareness and treatment of trench-related conditions such as “trench fever,” the use of antiseptic solutions to irrigate wounds, focus on a systematic approach to triage, administering anesthetics, and use of the Thomas Splint.


Twenty-four of the first contingent of African American nurses assigned to the European Theater of Operations, 1944. Courtesy of the U.S. Archives

The number of nurses and medical professionals increased greatly during World War II, with more than 59,000 serving in the Army Nurse Corps and 11,000 in the Navy Nurse Corps. These nurses were required to undergo special military training to use their skills during the middle of battles, which allowed them to provide faster care. In some situations, nurses were provided firearms for protection. Additionally, 500 African American nurses were admitted to care for black prisoners and enemy soldiers.

During the Korean War, the first course in nursing administration was established and included principles of nursing administration, trends in nursing, principles in supervision and teaching, hospital organization, and more. As with civilian hospitals, a nurse’s role continued to evolve. During Vietnam, responsibilities included treating massive causality situations involving amputations, wounds, and chest tubes.


Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom

Catastrophic injury and loss of human life characterized the longest war in American history. Hi-tech and low-tech weaponry and an extremely challenging environment tested the physical, mental, and emotional resolve of all those involved. Military healthcare professionals practiced nursing with a “twist,” according to the Army Nurse Corps Association. Deployed to dangerous situations in urban warfare, nurses had to wear body armor, carry weapons, and work in temperatures as high as 140° F. They overcame language barriers and worked on ailments as diverse as common colds to double amputees. 


Learn More

This Memorial Day, give a moment of thanks and recognition to all the nurses who made the ultimate sacrifice. And learn more about the history of military nursing and nurses’ wartime contributions at the links below.

U.S. National Archives 

National Park Service

Army Nurse Corps Association

Arlington National Cemetery


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