A History of Nurses and Combat Medics From the Revolutionary War to Today

Nurses have contributed to health care and military causes since the beginning of American history. During the American Revolution, many women were destitute when their husbands and fathers went off to war. To survive, they often hung around the military camps, hoping for shelter and scraps of food to eat. As casualties occurred, these women stepped up to nurse the wounded and sick soldiers. When the situation was brought to Gen. George Washington's attention, he petitioned Congress to approve the use of these women as nurses to care for patients in the Continental hospitals. Over time, nurses have become an invaluable part of military efforts, often serving in dangerous situations to care for combat casualties. 

The Spanish-American War spanned several months in 1898. With the tropical setting of this war, casualties involved not only battle injuries but illnesses. More than 1,500 nurses responded to a need for nursing care, and 21 nurses died as a result of their service during this war. In response to the contribution of these nurses during the Spanish-American War, the U.S. surgeon general began working to establish a military force of nurses. In 1901, Congress approved the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps.

The number of nurses serving in the military swelled significantly during World War I. By the end of this conflict, more than 22,000 people served as military nurses. When World War II erupted, the American Red Cross recruited heavily for nurses to join the war effort. Estimates indicate that around 74,000 nurses served during World War II, often entering dangerous combat zones in their quest to aid injured soldiers.

Trauma care has always been an integral part of combat nursing. On the battlefields of the Revolutionary War, nursing mainly involved comfort measures to assist the wounded. During the Civil War, nursing changed significantly. As a profession, nursing was just beginning to take shape. Formal training was nonexistent, and field hospitals were disorganized. Initially, men served as nurses, but the men were soon needed in battle, so women stepped up to serve. Clara Barton worked tirelessly on battlefields and behind the scenes to ensure that wounded soldiers received adequate care. Dorothea Dix was also instrumental during the Civil War, working to establish guidelines and protocols for her corps of volunteer nurses.

In modern warfare, trauma care has evolved to meet the needs of different types of battles and casualties. Military operations are often faster and involve the rapid dispersion of fighting units. Combat physicians and nurses often perform mobile surgeries right on the battlefield. Today's combat nurses need not only strong medical skills and knowledge, but the ability to adapt immediately to whatever circumstances occur. Combat nurses experience many of the same things that other military members do as they serve. Language and cultural differences present ongoing challenges. Weather conditions also pose risks, including storms and extreme temperatures. And combat nurses are not immune to issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes, nurses are accused of abuse at nursing homes as well. 

Visit these Internet resources to learn more about combat nursing: