By Maureen Shawn Kennedy, AJN editor-in-chief
So many of us look forward to Memorial Day weekend as a welcome long weekend and official start of summer. But there are many for whom Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) is a reminder of loved ones who died in military service—and that includes a significant number of military nurses who cared for the wounded in various wars.
We’d like to take this occasion to remind us all of the real meaning of this day and to honor the sacrifices of our colleagues. While it’s hard to find specific numbers of nurses who died in wars, one can extrapolate from what’s known about women who died, since most women who served in combat areas from the start of the 20th century through the Vietnam War were nurses.*
According to the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, the first women members of the military killed in the line of duty were two army nurses, Edith Ayres and Helen Wood, in World War I. The foundation reports that “359 servicewomen died during World War I, the vast majority from the influenza epidemic that swept around the world, killing millions of people. Approximately 543 military women died in the line of duty during World War II, including 16 from enemy fire, and others from a variety of causes including aircraft and vehicle accidents and illness. Seventeen military nurses died during the Korean War, most from aircraft crashes. Eight military women died while serving in Vietnam, one from enemy fire, and 16 died during Operation Desert Storm.” That’s a total of 943 women, most of whom were nurses.
One hard-won memorial specific to military women is the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, which was created through the efforts of nurse Diane Carlson and others. A May 2009 AJN article, “The Vietnam Women’s Memorial: Better Late than Never” (free until August 1), by Kay Schwebke, describes the project to create the memorial and also vividly details the experiences of nurses who served in Vietnam and bore the memories with them throughout their lives. (Be sure to listen to the moving podcasts of interviews with and poems by these nurses.) Take a moment to remember them, and those nurses in past wars who did not make it through their time of service, and of course the many soldiers they tended and saw die far from home, this Memorial Day.
* It’s perhaps worth noting that, prior to the dominance of women in nursing and in military nursing in the 20th century, men had a long history of providing nursing care in war—and now, of course, there are again male military nurses risking their lives and facing the many challenges of wartime nursing.