“The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”: Army, Navy and Air Force Nurse Corps Recruitment Efforts during the Vietnam War
- By the mid-1960s, America faced a nationwide deficit of nurses, resulting in a nurse shortage that affected civilian and military medical communities alike. In response to shortages in the Army, Air Force and Navy Nurse Corps, the American military initiated an extended, concerted effort to secure military nurses in numbers sufficient to reverse its shortage, which by 1965 had become increasingly acute as a result of the growing American troop presence in Vietnam.
- In order to draw American women into the service, the three nurse corps launched an intensive recruitment campaign, featuring celebrity endorsements of the corps, educational assistance programs for nurses committed to serving a duration in the military, and a widespread advertisement campaign, all designed to attract nurses to the military. Meeting with mixed success, these efforts reveal a great deal about the military’s perception of nurses’ values and wants during the Vietnam era. An analysis of recruitment ads employed during the Vietnam era will be a primary focus of this chapter.
- This chapter will also explore female nurses’ motivations for becoming nurses and their decision to join the military during the Vietnam era, as well as the issues with which they grappled as they came to their decision to enlist in the American Armed Forces.
- After exploring the military’s recruitment campaign and women’s motivations for joining the Armed Forces, this chapter will discuss the extent to which the military’s understanding of what might draw women to the corps overlapped with women’s stated reasons for joining the nurse corps.
The Nurse Shortage
- By the 1960s, despite the presence of an unparalleled number of nurses in the United States, the growing health care demands of a rapidly expanding, aging population outweighed the availability of nurses and other health care professionals. The introduction of social programs such as Medicaid and Medicare, as well as the post-WWII surge in employer-provided health insurance, strained the American medical system, already under duress due to increased life expectancies and evolving expectations of health care in the 1960s.
- Despite strong efforts to recruit nurses, expanding workforce opportunities for American women in the 1960s complicated the military’s efforts to procure nurses. Better pay, better hours, and greater opportunities for advancement attracted many women to venture outside traditionally feminized careers such as nursing and teaching, and by 1965 only 4.5 percent of high school graduates were entering nursing school, far fewer than were needed to meet the growing demand for nurses in America.
- In addition to expanding opportunities afforded by the American workforce, the general nurse shortage in America in the 1960s meant that the military also confronted competitive civilian nursing opportunities.
- In addition to competition posed by civilian recruitment efforts, in their attempts to enlist military nurses the three corps also had to contend with the parents of potential nurse applicants, some of whom strongly contested their daughter’s desire to join the nurse corps. While many women’s parents were overtly supportive of their daughter’s decision to enlist, other women interviewed in this study recall their parents expressing reservations about their daughter’s desire to join the military. Many of these reservations centered around the notion that military women were “loose” or lesbian. My dissertation examines why some parents harbored these stereotypes and how women who wanted to join the corps approached their parents’ concerns. (Some simply ignored them, some convinced them that these conceptions were unfounded, etc.)
- The above factors and others (notably the antiwar movement in the later years of the war) complicated the nurse corps efforts to recruit nurses into the military.
- By June of 1965 the military nurse shortage was acute, with the ANC reporting a nurse shortage of about 40 percent. Numbering only 3,121 at year end, the corps fell seriously short of the 5,000 nurses required to meet its needs, with particular shortages in the areas of medical surgical nursing, anesthesiology, and operating room nursing. Nurse shortages also gripped the Navy and Air Force Nurse Corps. Going into 1966 the NNC reported a shortage of roughly 2,200 nurses. Comparatively, the AFNC, the corps under which the shortage was most pronounced, fell 3,277 nurses short of its stated need that year. Despite their best recruitment efforts, each of the three corps continued to experience nurse shortages throughout the duration of the Vietnam War.
- The Army, Navy, and Air Force Nurse Corps launched a significant advertising campaign designed to attract qualified young nurses to the corps. They ran advertisements in popular magazines including Glamour, Life, and Mademoiselle, as well as in nursing journals such as the American Journal of Nursing and Tomorrow’s Nurse in hopes of reaching a wide audience of potential recruits.
- In these advertisements, the three nurse corps hoped to capture what they imagined might draw young women into the military nurse corps. Travel, educational, financial, and professional opportunities promoted by the nurse corps suggest a belief that young American women sought opportunities for adventure, self-improvement, autonomy, and career development; in this respect, the nurse corps’ view of potential recruits appears progressive, in line with women’s evolving personal and professional aspirations in the 1960s. But if some of the advertisements marketed by the corps were forward-looking, others were a great deal more conservative, revealing the nurse corps to be not entirely progressive, nor entirely traditional.
- The following are examples of excerpts from recruitment ads issued by the three corps:
- “You have the opportunity to go places you couldn’t in ordinary civilian life.”
- “For an Army nurse, the world is wide…Most people live in a ‘some day’ world. ‘Some day’ they will swim in the Pacific, drink café au lait in Paris, glide in a gondola through Venetian waterways, look up through clouds of cherry blossoms to the sky over Japan or Washington, D.C.” But while most people talk of some days, the ad contends, “They live at home in the same local pattern that takes them from house to job, to Main Street for shopping, around the corner to buy Sunday papers.” In the ANC, the ad assures, “some day” is today.
Patriotism and Duty
- “In times of conflict, American nurses have always answered the call to help heal and comfort our wounded.”
- “Serving as a Navy nurse is a humane, as well as patriotic privilege.”
- “You’ve heard the news. You know American soldiers are fighting inViet Nam,” reads one ad. “Could you face yourself and the oath you took when you became a nurse if any of them suffered needlessly because there were not enough nurses?”
- “Our fighting men deserve the finest nursing care in the world – and only nurses like you can give it to them.”
- “We need them [soldiers]. They need you.”
- “Serve yourself and your country.”
Career and Professional Opportunities
- Captain Barbara Pedersen, featured in a recruitment brochure circulated by the ANC, describes some of the demanding opportunities she encountered while stationed inJapan: “I had opportunities to work with Japanese B Encephalitis, a very rare disease, one that even many doctors never see. And Hemmorrhagic Fever, too.”
- Many of the ads in this vein stressed opportunities for professional recognition, autonomy and respect in the military: “The C-141 may look like a supply plane to you. But just imagine you’re an Air Force Nurse inVietnam. And the C-141 is your hospital. The C-141 is like no hospital ward you’ve ever worked in. There is no doctor on call. No operating room. No lab. No extra medical services to draw on. Just you.”
- Quoted in an ANC recruitment brochure, Allison Mirakian explains her disappointment with civilian nursing which denied her opportunities for professional recognition and growth: “I found myself feeling very stifled…I didn’t have the sense of responsibility and authority that I have in the Army Nurse Corps. Nursing programs today prepare you for a more autonomous role as a nurse and there are very few civilian hospitals which are able to allow you that much autonomy.” By comparison, Mirakian contends, “Military nursing does.”
- “In the Army Nurse Corps a nurse is a professional and is treated as one.” The ad continues: “she is released to take her proper place at the side of the doctor, who welcomes her as a partner and colleague, to concentrate on the job she knows best and enjoys most.”
- “In your nurse’s ward uniform,” explains one NNC brochure, “you wear the insignia of your grade, the Navy Blue and Gold stripes on your cap.” Accordingly, the ad explains, “You receive the respect and deference due to your rank at all times.”
- In a similar vein, the AFNC not only promised potential recruits “every opportunity for personal and professional growth,” but as members of the Air Force, the corps also promised young women “the same pay and privileges as male officers” of the same rank.
- “The Army will help qualified nursing students through school,” declares one ad. “Stay in school and send us the bill,” asserts another.
- “There are programs for students in diploma schools, students in collegiate schools, graduate RNs with or without B.S. degrees. Whatever your next step is, see how the Army Nurse Corps can help.”
- “While a student you will receive an officer’s salary, allowances for room and board, 30-day paid vacations, free medical care, and military shopping privileges.”
- “You have full time for study. No military duties. No military uniforms.”
- “Your dates will probably range from quiet dinners at the Officer’s Club to a rousing evening in a discotheque,” reads one ad featuring an attractive woman eating dinner at a nice restaurant with a uniformed man. “And if a diamond crops up on your third finger, left hand,” the ad continues, “it won’t surprise us a bit. We’re used to it.”
- “There is no age limit on romance, either. Junior officers have not cornered the market completely. Senior officers do their share of walking down the aisle to Mendelssohn music.”
Women’s Stated Reasons for Joining the Corps
- Although women cited a diversity of reasons for joining the military nurse corps, some elements of military service seem to have been more compelling than others. First and foremost, the women interviewed in this study cited the educational funding opportunities available to nurses as their primary reason for joining the military. (2/3 of the women interviewed explained their decision to enlist in these terms.) For some women, the funding programs offered by the military provided nurses with an opportunity to pay for their own education, alleviating the financial burden on their parents. For others, educational assistance presented the opportunity to act autonomously, in some cases continuing education that their parents deemed unnecessary on the basis that they would simply get married and quit working.
- Patriotism and opportunities for travel were the next most commonly cited reasons for enlisting.
- Although some women volunteered to go toVietnamto be with partners who were being sent, and most women dated while in the military/Vietnam, none of the women interviewed cited dating opportunities as being responsible for their decision to enlist.
Examples of Recruitment Ads
For examples of NNC and AFNC recruitment ads, cut and paste the following links into your internet browser:
Sadly, I tried to attach a few more recruitment ads but when I tried to email them to you I got a message back saying that the file size exceeded the size of file your email account can accept.