WWII cadet nurses still awaiting ‘honorary veterans’ as government debates | Entertainment/Life
For Velma Carroll Easker and the other surviving members of the US Cadet Nurse Corps, recognition is better late than never – if it happens at all.
Easker joined the Corps in its early days in 1943, when she was 17, leading to a 40-year career as an obstetrics nurse. She and her colleagues would be designated honorary veterans if a bill doing so could ever pass Congress.
The Corps, which helped produce more than 120,000 civilian nurses during World War II by providing free training to its members, is the only uniformed service of war that has never been more recognized.
“Everyone wanted to serve their country,” said Easker, now 96 and living in an assisted living facility in Kenner. “It would be nice to be considered a veteran. But they don’t have to give us special honors.
In fact, the cost to make living members of the Corps Honorary Veterans would be minimal – no benefits other than honorable discharge certificates, service medals, and grave markers for those who wish. The American Nurses Association and several other physician and veteran groups support the bill.
But some members of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs are concerned about the change in the definition of who is a veteran. That’s why the bill, despite the bipartisan co-sponsorship of 36 House members and 24 senators, including Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, stalled.
An aging body
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Illinois), the primary sponsor of the bill first introduced in the House in 2018, pointed out that the youngest of the Corps’ surviving members, of whom there are likely no more than 3,000, is in the mid-90s.
“These wonderful cadet nurses worked tirelessly to help strengthen the country’s health care system during the war,” she said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have many left, so we want to recognize them while we can.
“We tried to thread the needle so that the bill could pass. But it was hard to get through. »
That was not the case 79 years ago when a bill introduced by Rep. Frances Bolton (D-Ohio) on March 29, 1943, creating the Corps as a way to help alleviate the dire shortage of nurses that existed before and during the war. passed unanimously by both houses of Congress.
The program was open to all women between the ages of 17 and 35 and offered free tuition, room and board, and a small stipend at accredited nursing schools in exchange for a commitment to serve during the duration of the war, which made it a precursor to the GI Bill, adopted a year later.
A need for nurses
Despite the prevailing racism of the Jim Crow era, the distribution of funds for the program would be done without regard to race or ethnicity.
The cadet training period would be reduced from 36 months to 30 months to get more qualified nurses faster. The need was such that in his 1945 State of the Union address, Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt even suggested recruiting nurses from the army.
As a bonus for registration, cadets received stylish uniforms (for summer and winter) topped with a beret inspired by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Uniforms were not used for normal nursing duties, but cadets wore a patch with the Corps’ Maltese cross emblem.
“I really liked the uniforms,” Easker recalled. “They made you feel special in the way you behaved.
“And if you wore them in stores, you sometimes got a discount.”
The uniforms were advertised as so attractive that “it’s hard to tell which one is smarter, which one you’ll wear with more pride”.
Recruitment posters featured model-worthy women in uniform. One was made by the artist who made the famous Varga pin-ups for Esquire.
The pitches also emphasized service to the homeland as well as free training in a “job of the future”. And they worked.
This was especially true in New Orleans, where Charity Hospital became one of the largest nurse cadet centers in the nation, producing more than 700 graduates before the program ended in s1948.
New Orleans was also the regional training oversight headquarters for 11 states plus Puerto Rico.
In 1945, 1,036 cadets from the city’s five nursing schools (Charity, Hotel Dieu, Mercy Hospital, Touro Infirmary, and Dillard University) attended a mass initiation at the City Auditorium.
At that time, 85% of the nation’s female nursing students were in the Corps, and a similar number of the nation’s nursing schools, then mostly hospital-run, participated.
Leaving the farm
Easker, then Velma Carroll, grew up far from New Orleans near Mechanicsville, Iowa. She knew little about the cadet program, but shortly after graduating from high school, her father, who knew about it and wanted something other than farm life for his daughter, drove her at St. Luke’s Hospital near Cedar Rapids where she enlisted.
For Easker, becoming a nurse was part of a family tradition of providing care in their community, although Velma was the first in the family to make it a profession.
For her younger sister, Vera Fuller, then 14 and now 93, it was a big deal.
“Velma wasn’t the kind of person to make a big deal out of it,” Fuller said. “But everyone in our family was so proud of her.”
Cadets were civilians, but there were many aspects of their service, including taking the Cadet Oath, which pledged fidelity to the obligation Easker took on for his country and his profession, adding, “I will keep my strong body, my mind alert and my heart steady. I will be kind, tolerant and understanding. Above all, I will devote myself now and forever to the triumph of life over death.
Choose a specialty
Cadets were offered four specialties: medicine, surgery, pediatrics or obstetrics. Easker chose OB/GYN because the administrator at St. Luke’s School of Nursing had worked in that field and made a strong impression.
The first class of cadets at St. Luke’s was small, just 10 members, including Easker, and lived and studied alongside the students who were not in the Corps.
Since they weren’t in the army, they didn’t drill or have any other outside duties. Because their training had been condensed from 36 to 30 months, cadet nurses typically worked 12-hour days, usually with little time off.
When she had free time, Easker volunteered at the USO canteen and attended dances, usually in uniform, as it seemed to attract more male attention.
“I had never been away from home, and it was nice,” Easker said. “It was hard work, but I was used to it since growing up on a farm.
“It was exciting knowing you were doing your part.”
Career in New Orleans
After graduating in 1946, Easker spent a few months in Seattle training as a teacher. But she decided real nursing was her calling, so she returned to St. Luke’s.
In 1948 Velma married David Easker, a geologist. David Easker worked for Texaco, and in 1950 the couple moved to Shreveport followed by a move to New Orleans five years later where they raised four daughters and lived in the same house in Metairie until his death in 2008.
Velma Easker worked at Mercy Hospital, Lakeside, and finally East Jefferson, where she was part of the first neonatal intensive care unit. And while her cadet days were far behind her, Easker was known for her concern for her appearance and she always addressed doctors by their title, that was if they were officers.
Curiously, Easker, who retired in 1985, does not recall meeting any other members of the cadet corps over the years. But maybe that’s because the experience of nurses in those days was so common that it wasn’t talked about much.
Easker also has no memories of that time due to the loss of his home in Katrina.
The memories linger
But she has fond memories of her time as a cadet and can appreciate what the program accomplished for the war effort as well as advancing the standard of nursing education in general.
So, as she said, if the honorary veteran designation happens, it happens.
But Bustos, who is not seeking re-election after five terms at home, said she would continue to work for the passage of the bill or turn the case over to one of her other co-sponsors. .
“These women have helped move the medical profession forward,” she said. “It is high time that we pay tribute to people who have given so much for their country.
Policy makers should perhaps heed the thoughts of Surgeon General Thomas Parran, who told Congress in 1945, “Nurse cadets provided nursing power to the military and prevented the collapse of nursing services at the front interior.
“We cannot measure what the loss to the country would have been if civilian nursing had collapsed, any more than we could measure the cost of a failure at the Normandy beachheads.”