A History of Nurses in the Military

RegisteredNursing.org Staff Writers | Updated/Verified: May 8, 2024

The Lady with the Lamp

When one thinks of a nurse, images of a caped Florence Nightingale roaming the dark halls of a military hospital with oil lamps aglow come to mind. While Ms. Nightingale's philosophy on health and high standards for the nurses in her charge changed the trajectory of nursing and healthcare overall, nurses have been aiding servicemembers since the Revolutionary War. In 1775, Congress approved General George Washington's request to add one nurse for every 10 patients in military hospitals.

Soon after the Spanish-American war in 1898, the U.S. military officially added contract nurses to the tune of over 1,500. This included nuns, African-Americans, and a handful of Native Americans to care for the sick and injured servicemen. Seeing the value these women brought to the well-being and health of the troops, in 1899 the Surgeon General established criteria for a reserve group of nurses in preparation for the next war campaign. Congress officially established the Army Nurse Corps in 1901 and then the Navy Nurse Corps seven years later.

RELATED: African American Nurses: Making History

World War I

By the time the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, nearly 600 nurses were on active duty between the two divisions. By the end of the war, more than 22,000 nurses had served, including several hundred who had paid the ultimate price of their lives. Many nurses were decorated for their bravery and actions such as Miss Jane I. Rignel, Miss Linnie Leckrone, and Miss Irene Robar, who received the Citation Star (later converted to the Silver Star Medal).

World War II

Six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there were only 12,000 active duty nurses in the Army Nurse Corps, most of whom were young and inexperienced. The Army initiated an intense training program for the nurses that eventually inducted over 27,000 newly commissioned nurses for the war. As nurse anesthetists were also in short supply, the Army developed a specialized 6-month training that produced more than 2,000 nurses trained in anesthesia practices. Nurses could also choose a twelve-week program developed by the Surgeon General to manage care and medication for the overwhelming psychiatric population.

World War II saw nearly 74,000 women serving as nurses across all areas of military campaigns, with the American Red Cross (founded by Civil War nurse Clara Barton) fielding most of the recruitment efforts. Many nurses ended up in direct combat zones or behind enemy lines caring for the ill and injured. Dozens of nurses were captured by the Japanese to become prisoners of war. In 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the nurse draft bill to add 10,000 nurses to the Army Nurse Corps. This came within one vote of approval from the Senate when Germany surrendered and the war ended; however, the Corps had already seen more than 10,000 nurses volunteer for service.

Changes to Rank

Nurses did not attain full commissioned officer status in the Army or Navy Corps until 1947. All of the nurses, including the chief nurse, were enlisted servicewomen taking orders from the physician officers. The role of the chief nurse was an appointed position that was posted whenever two or more nurses were serving in a unit. This prominent promotion required the candidates to pass examinations that included testing in hygiene, math, and Army regulations. The chief nurse was responsible for overseeing the daily assignments and schedules of approximately 20 nurses living in military quarters.

Air Force Nurse Corps

In the summer of 1949, the Air Force Nurse Corps emerged from the Army Nurse Corps as a response to the ever-growing aeromedical evacuations (aerovac) of injured service members. Nurses had been in service as flight nurses under the Army Nurse Corps since 1943, so when an official and independent Air Force Medical Service was established, the Air Force Nurse Corps was already an integral part of the division.


The 1950s saw many changes to nurses in the military, as men were commissioned into the Nurse Corps and women nurses were permitted to join the National Guard and the Air National Guard. Nurses became entrenched in the Vietnam campaign and as the war progressed, the need for trauma and critical care nurses grew to new heights. Aerovac transports were getting the injured to the mobile Army surgical hospital (M.A.S.H.) in record time and the Army Nurse Corps was depleted. In response to the demand, the Army Student Nurse Program and the Walter Reed Institute of Nursing were created to meet the demand by training nurses who then were obligated to serve on active duty for a specified time.

The Nurse Corps came away from the Vietnam campaign with a renewed spirit to promote and expand the profession of nursing. Numerous educational programs were developed for advanced practice registered nursing. By 1976, in alignment with the American Nurses Association, all newly commissioned offers in the corps were required to possess a baccalaureate degree.

Operation Desert Storm/Shield

Most of the 1980s saw all three Nursing Corps aiding in humanitarian missions including downed aircraft, earthquake victim relief around the globe and in the United States, and caring for those affected by major hurricanes. Nurses serving on U.S. Naval hospital ships such as the USNS Mercy or the USNS Comfort provided care and relief across the globe. Operation Desert Shield/Storm of the early 1990s required 44 field hospitals across the globe, called Deployable Medical Systems (DEPMEDS) and included a staff of nearly 3,000 nurses, two-thirds of which were from the National Guard or Reserve units.

From the war effort, nurses moved into new landscapes for the profession: Primary Care in the outpatient settings and Military Leadership command positions. Nurse Practitioners and nurses played important roles in managing clinics and providing care and education to service members and their families. Meanwhile, Nurse Corps officers were proving that they could lead and serve at all levels of the organization.

Modern Military Nursing

Operation Enduring Freedom began shortly after the September 11, 2001 attack on the U.S. Nurses were again called to set up DEPMEDS and care for the men and women serving in the campaign. This war brought increased numbers of armed forces members daunted with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the need for more availability of access to psychological care. Nurse case managers were instituted to assist this fragile community with healing and moving forward to re-enter civilian life. Throughout history, nurses have made a tremendous impact on the men and women who have served, and continue to serve, the United States of America. From the War of 1812 to modern-day campaigns, the stories of military nurses' achievements, selfless dedication, and patriotism continue to inspire those who seek to know more of these angels with the lamps.