Military Nurse History

The military nurses role in history is an interesting one that begins before recorded history. Our earliest records on nursing indicate that nursing was conducted by monks and nuns of various religious orders. It was considered to be work of a spiritual nature as well as a physical one. Monks and other religious/military orders accompanied the soldiers of the crusades to the holy land. During the crusades (1090 AD) a military order was established that was known as the Knights Hospitaller. They provided care for sick, injured and poor pilgrims who traveled to Jerusalem. This is probably the first know instance of military nursing as the order was considered to be a military order of the church.

Over time the profession of nursing evolved and became the province of "drunks, harlots and other women of ill repute". This was the state of nursing during the mid 1800's. Several significant changes occurred during these times and nursing evolved into a well respected profession and eventually was recognized as a science. All of this would not have come to pass if it were not for the efforts of many nurses who took up the torch and carried it. History only documents a handful of people and says "These were the catalysts".

By 1854 the Crimean War had started and Florence Nightingale became the mother of modern nursing . She led an expedition of volunteer nurses to aid wounded and ill soldiers. Appalled by the lack of fresh air, proper food and sanitation she became a driving force behind modernizing nursing and military nursing in particular. What made her particularly effective was that she was well educated, dedicated and she was able to convey her message to the political establishment of Great Britain.

Florence Nightingale was also very influential on U.S. Nursing. Many of her concepts and nursing methods were used by nurses who volunteered for both the Union and the Confederate forces during the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). During the time of the Civil War some nurses were given honorary appointments or rank in the military but military nurses were still primarily civilians who volunteered or were hired by the government. Over 5000 nurses served in the U.S. Civil War.

During this same time period Dorothea Dix rose to prominence championing the humane treatment of the mentally ill. 1840-54. She later went on to become the first Superintendent of Union Army Nurses. She often clashed with the medical department over the treatment of soldiers and patients. One of the hallmarks of her tenure was her insistence that wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict be treated with the same compassion, dignity and nursing care.

Clara Barton is significant in military nursing history because of her efforts during and after the U.S. Civil war to find missing Union soldiers. In 1881 she formed the American Red Cross and served as the president of that organization until 1904. The American Red Cross began its primary mission as a disaster relief society. At the onset of the Spanish-American War the focus became refugee, disaster and seeing to the humane treatment of prisoners of war (POW's).

The Spanish-American War (1898) saw nurses serving the military but only as contracted or volunteer nurses. They still remained officially civilians.
After the Spanish-American War in 1898 the U.S. Army began to see a need for a permanent corps of women nurses. The Army Nurse Corps was officially formed in 1901. The early commissions were not considered part of the regular army and nurses were awarded "equivalent rank" in the nurse corps. This led to much confusion about the authority of the nurses to instruct and give orders to other medical personnel especially corpsmen (medics) who worked closely with the nurses.

The U.S. Navy formed the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908.

World War I (1914-1918) saw increased use of women in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. The ranks were still not considered to be "in the chain of command". By the end of WWI it is estimated that over 30,000 women had served in the military. Many of them as nurses.

World War II (1940-1945) saw nurses serving in over 6 major theatres and all around the world. By this time nurses were starting to be accorded rank in accordance with the same (or nearly the same) standards as those for male applicants to the officer corps. The Army Nurse Corps (ANC) had fewer than 1000 nurses at the beginning of WWII. By the end of WWII the ANC had over 59,000 nurses in the corps.

In 1947 the U.S. Air Force was recognized as a separate service from the U.S. Army. Two years later the Air Force Medical Service (AFMS) was established and the Air Force Nurse Corps was recognized as a branch of the AFMS.

In 1950 the Korean War began. Nurses were the only female military personnel allowed to serve in a combat zone. From 1950-1953 nurses served aboard ships, in mobile surgical hospitals and even on hospital trains. At the outbreak of hostilities there were only 22,000 women in uniform. Approximately 7,000 in healthcare. An excellent synopsis of military nursing history during the Korean War.

By the time of the Vietnam War(1964-1973) the respective nurse corps had greatly reduced their ranks. By most estimates less than 7000 nurses served in Vietnam. " The toughest job in Vietnam is being a nurse" Joe Muharsky. click here for more information about Nurses in Vietnam

The invasion of Grenada (1983) and the Panama Canal (1989) saw few causalities but military nurses were there.

The first gulf war (1990-1991) was the first truly "high tech" war and the ability of modern medicine to stabilize and transport critically ill rapidly over several thousand miles was refined during this time frame. Military flight nurses became instrumental in achieving this.

Currently (2001-2013) the great war on terrorism is being fought. Soldiers serve and fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Military nurses are there. From the beginning military nurses have been at the forefront in developing nursing as a science and profession of caring. They have served all over the world, cared for the ill during epidemics, provided care for the dying and are one of the most revered and respected professions in the military.

Army Nursing in Pictures