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‘Nevertheless, She Persisted’ : Saluting Military Healers

In honor of Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate historic women’s achievements, the Veterans History Project (VHP) presents a six-part series of blog posts highlighting the many amazing accomplishments of the women who bravely volunteered for our Armed Services. The following is the fifth post in this series.

Black and white copy negative of George Washington, in uniform, seated at a table, as Deborah Sampson [i.e., Simpson] hands him a letter, and an officer watches. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, //www.loc.gov/item/2002698474/.

This year’s National Women’s History Month theme of “Nevertheless, She Persisted” couldn’t be more appropriate for the nearly two million female veterans in the United States, as well as the approximately 6,500 women veterans within the VHP archive. Since the genesis of our nation, women have been courageously volunteering, often when prohibited, in order to join men on the battlefields and defend our liberty. From Deborah Sampson, who served disguised as a man in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment during the American Revolution, to the  three women who recently became the first female infantry Marines, women have taken risks, broken records, and shattered gender barriers. Whenever, wherever or whichever branch they served, these intrepid lives shaped the world for future generations. While many of these women’s selfless sacrifice won’t be noted in the pages of traditional history books, because of their decision to share their story with VHP, their stories of resilience will inspire our next generation of heroines.

 

 

 

1943 Promotional War poster urging women to join the Army Nurse Corps by artist Ruzzie Green. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, //www.loc.gov/item/3g02675/.

Photo of Alice Mikel Duffield in nurse’s uniform [1924]. Alice L. Mikel Duffield Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, AFC2001/00/01747

When you think of the first women permitted to enlist in our military, you may envision the iconic SPARs, WACs, WAVEs, Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, and WASPs of the World War II era who took on traditional male roles by enlisting in the military and supporting their country. Even before women were asked to serve in non-combat roles during World War II, nurses and support staff donned the U.S. military uniform in order to patriotically provide aid to soldiers in World War I.  Alice Duffield always had a great concern for human rights, and compassion for others. Forgoing a proposal of marriage, Duffield decided to dedicate her life to helping  others, and became a captain in the United States Army Nurse Corps.  Not for the faint of heart, Duffield quickly learned that only those who were physically, and more importantly, psychologically strong could be a nurse.  Emotions ran high during her first few weeks when Duffield couldn’t help a dying patient, but she quickly learned to compose herself and persist in order to help those she still could.  When Duffield participated in her VHP interview she was 105 years old, but could still recall vividly the emotions experienced when she helped African-American troops during the influenza epidemic of 1918, and the stunning way she celebrated when the Armistice was signed.

 

Photo of Nancy Sanchez at work with an American patient, 95th Evacuation Hospital, Da Nang, Vietnam Aida Nancy Sanchez Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, AFC2001/00/43733

The 1970-80’s TV show M.A.S.H. shined a spotlight on Army medical staff during the Korean War.  Although the entry age was 21, this requirement was waved for 18-year-old Nancy Sanchez, who joined the Army Medical Services in 1952. As a Physical Therapist, her first roles were stateside, where she successfully advocated for changing sexist policies and procedures. Thanks to her, female sergeants would no longer be offering massages to the three- and four-star generals stationed at Ft. Myer.  In 1970, Sanchez deployed to the Republic of Vietnam, where she was stationed at the 95th Evacuation Hospital in Da Nang.  During her 18-months in South Vietnam, Sanchez served in a war with no front lines.  Sanchez’s two and a half hour oral history includes haunting memories of triage, the complexity of emotions experienced by caring for enemy POWs and discussion of a secret mission to assist Cambodia’s President Lon Nol in recovering from a stroke.  Despite the often painful recollections of her time of service with the 95th Evac, Sanchez continues to relay the resounding message of strength of human spirit throughout her oral history stating:

 

…After the war was over and some thirty years later, I wonder how we got the “guts,” the courage, the stamina, the endurance, the spiritual and physical strength to do all that we did in Vietnam to save lives, to give comfort to those who were dying from their wounds, to count the dead and try to identify them. All of these horrendous things plus all the other horrible things that happened while we were there could bring a person to the point of insanity but no, we never gave up. We never lost our faith and the reason, the purpose of our mission. We never lost our vision of what we could do for our brothers and sisters, for our fellowman. I am saying again and again that the strength ofthe human spirit is beyond description. It kept us going in the right direction in the worst possible times. The human spirit kept us alive so that we kept on doing our mission straight forward and without hesitation but with great hope for a better life to come…not only for us but also for all of those we were leaving behind.

This March, and every month to follow, we honor the courageous women in uniform for their commitment to service and refusal to accept the status quo. Today, women serve as leaders in all branches of the military.  We hope that all women veterans proudly acknowledge their accomplishments and share their stories with the world.

 

4 Comments

  1. Billie Teate Harbison
    March 27, 2018 at 9:00 pm

    I can certainly identify with Nancy Sanchez and all the sad and terrible things she endured. I am very proud that I served in the U.S. Army from 1968-1973. My mother and father were Veterans of WWII. My mother was an Army recruiter. I grew up hearing stories from her military experiences and admiring her courage. My Dad was in the Army Air Corps and was in the thick of combat. He did not speak of his experiences often. I am the oldest of four girls and my mama recruited three of us My sister Margie joined in June 1968 and I joined four weeks later we headed to basic at Ft. McClellan, Alabama. Then to basic medic school at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio.After medic school my sister went to Ft, Lewis Washington and I went on to more training to become a Licensed Nurse. I went to the school at Wm, Beaumont General hospital. I was asked to stay on as an instructor at the (91c) school. I taught in the classrooms and on the wards,training medics going to Viet Nam. I saw and did things that I never dreamed I could do or see. I discovered some of the finest men and women I ever met were in the Army. They were so brave and courageous. many,too many died. My baby sister joined the army shortly after Margie and I did. She was first a medic, then an LPN. She was stationed at Ft. Huachuca. Arizona. She died at the age of 21, in service to her country. I miss her every day. Everyone who met her loved and admired her. My family gave so much to our country.I am proud of my family for being so brave and patriotic. I have to say the military was the best for me because it made me want to learn and do all that I can for others I gained a Bachelor of Education,degree and Masters in Social work. Thanks to the GI bill. I get all my medical care from the VA. I even bought my home with the help of a GI loan.As I get older and older and I think of all I have seen, done,and learned in my time here most of my most vivid memories are those of my time in the US Army. Long comment right. Thanks to our military I became a strong,nurturing,and independent woman. I want to also say I am so proud of all the women serving their country. It is so hard sometimes but I don’t think you will ever regret your time in service.

  2. Kerry Ward
    March 29, 2018 at 8:47 am

    Ms. Harbison,

    Thank you for reading for sharing your ties to Nancy Sanchez’s story!

    I was moved by your heartfelt note demonstrating your resilience and compassion. We would be honored if you would could consider sharing your story and/or that of your family members with Veterans History Project. I encourage you to download a Field Kit at //www.loc.gov/vets/ and email [email protected] with any questions.

    All best,

    Kerry

  3. Jackie Garrick
    March 30, 2018 at 7:50 am

    I loved being an Army Social Work Officer at Walter Reed from 1992-1995. I was able to use what I knew about PTSD and having previously worked with Vietnam Veterans to assist returning Gulf War Veterans. Those experiences continued to shape the work I did at VA, DoD and with Congress as professional staff. We changed laws and wrote policy that improved benefits and services for PTSD, suicide prevention, resilience and mental health.

  4. Kerry Ward
    March 30, 2018 at 9:28 am

    Hi Ms. Garrick,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for all of the inspiring work you have done with military mental health. If you have the opportunity, we will be hosting a panel discussion on PTSD in May and would love to have you attend. We would also be honored if you would consider sharing your story so that others may learn from and be inspired by your experiences. Please feel free to reach out to [email protected] for further information.

    Kind regards,

    Kerry

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