By Lewis Barger, AMEDD Office of Medical HistoryMarch 5, 2013
On January 24, 2013, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta terminated the Department of Defense policy excluding women from ground combat assignments. However, women have been serving in combat in the Army Medical Department (AMEDD) for nearly 100 years, and with the AMEDD for even longer as volunteers and contract nurses. During World War I, Beatrice MacDonald was the first of three nurses to receive the Distinguished Service Cross after she volunteered to accompany a surgical team reinforcing a British Casualty Clearing Station on the front lines. While serving in that capacity, MacDonald received shrapnel wounds to her face which resulted in the loss of her right eye. Undeterred, MacDonald resumed her original duties at Evacuation Hospital No. 2 following her convalescence and continued to serve there until January 1919.
During World War II, Capt. Annie Mealer was serving on Corregidor as a chief nurse. As the Japanese closed in, she was one of the lucky few designated for evacuation before the inevitable capture of the fortress. However, shortly after she was directed to prepare, a fresh group of casualties was carried into the protection of the main tunnel.
"I looked at the litter as it passed. It was the little G.I. from the Topside switchboard…I went back to the operating room to find him badly wounded. As I sat there administering anesthesia to him, I reviewed the cases in the tunnel. They all needed help that only a nurse could give them. I sent word to my commanding officer that I would stay with them. Here in this tunnel choked with shell smoke and misery was a group of people that meant more to me than anything else."
Capt. Mealer was captured along with the remainder of the garrison and spent nearly three years as a prisoner of war at Santo Tomas, along with the other women who had been captured in the islands.
One of those, Maj. Ruby Bradley, would remain in service after the war and find herself in combat again in Korea as chief nurse for the 171st Evacuation Hospital. At the end of November 1950, the 171st was ordered to evacuate its patients and withdraw from Pyongyang where it was located. The overall evacuation of Eighth Army from North Korea outpaced the 171st's ability to clear its area. Bradley was ordered to leave but remained with her patients until all were evacuated. As she boarded a plane to depart the area an enemy shell destroyed the ambulance she had been using to ferry patients to the airfield. Bradley demonstrated bravery under fire in two wars, and by the time she retired from the service in 1963 she had received 34 medals and citations for bravery and was reportedly the most decorated woman in the military.
In more recent conflicts women in other AMEDD Corps have served in combat as well and 10 were killed as a result of hostile action since 9-11. Nearly all women who serve in the AMEDD are noncombatants, like their male counterparts, but that distinction has not protected them from combat. This latest announcement from the Pentagon acknowledges the reality that women have been serving under fire just like men, and in the combat arms will provide women the parity that AMEDD women have earned during the last century.