By Liz Finnegan
Patricia Maher, Democratic candidate for the 2nd Congressional District, held a press conference in Sayville on Saturday morning to draw attention to the US Cadet Nurse Corps Equity Act that's been introduced to Congress several times and yet has never made it past committee. If passed, the law would provide veteran's recognition to the 180,000 women who served in that cadet corps during and just after the end of World War II.
The US Cadet Nurse Corps was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to deal with the shortage of nurses on the home front as the war escalated overseas. At the time, the Army and Navy were pulling in registered nurses to serve in the military, and it left a serious void in civilian hospitals. That void needed to be filled quickly. The Nurse Training Act was passed unanimously in Congress on July 1, 1943 to deal with that shortage.
The new law provided funding for nursing schools that would accommodate a larger enrollment and provide a condensed program. It offered women who joined free training, uniforms, and room and board. In turn they were required to go where they were needed upon completion of their three-year program. An aggressive recruitment campaign ensued.
The Cadet Nurse Corps became a uniformed branch under the Public Health Service. Women from ages 17 to 35, who were high school graduates, were eligible to join. The cadets took a pledge to serve their country. They worked in hospitals as they trained, caring for both civilian and military patients and at the end of their training were prepared to be deployed. However, before the first class graduated, the war ended. The program was eventually eliminated.
Maher explained what appears to be a slight of these veterans while standing beside the memorial dedicated to Lt. Florence Evans, a World War II Army nurse who was killed in France on the last day of the war. Maher was joined by Gary Verticchio, past commander of the Smith Wever American Legion Post 651 in Sayville, Chuck Nogyeras of Patchogue, retired from the U.S. Navy, as well as a veteran's advocate and members of a community referralnetwork.
The candidate, whose mother had been a member of the US Nurse Cadet Corps, said she realized this inequity when her mother was denied certain benefits she would have had with veterans' status.
That inequity was first brought to light in 1995 by Congressman Nita Lowey (D-Westchester), who had submitted the bill several times, the last time in May 2013, but it has thus far received little support from her congressional colleagues. The bill had been in the House Armed Services Committee that's chaired by Rep. Buck McKeon (R-California) and is currently in the Military Personnel subcommittee that's chaired by Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) and ranking member Susan B. Davis (D-California).
However, Maher said this bill shouldn't even be an issue.
"There was an executive order by [President] Truman," she explained, saying that the order should have officially declared the nurse cadets as veterans. That order (#9575) was written by Truman on June 28, 1945. "They should have been given [veteran] benefits such as the security of knowing that you could be buried." She also noted that the original number of nurse cadets is diminishing daily. "What does Congress want to do, pass this law after they all die?"
Leann Murphy-Baker of Veteran's Protect, who advocates for veterans on a number of issues, said that indeed the World War II nurse cadets could probably become "extinct" in the coming years. "It's a generation that we did not take care of," she said. "We broke our promise to them."
A spokesperson in Lowey's office noted that of the original 180,000 who were in the Cadet Nurse Corps, only 3,100 members are currently registered with the state department.
Maher said the exclusion of these women has most likely been the result of the extra costs of providing them benefits as well as gender bias. She said that those who served in a similar program that recruited male physicians fresh out of medical school, automatically received veteran status, which proves her point.
"They all made a tremendous commitment to this country. They didn't know that the war was going to end. I want to make sure these women are honored by getting the benefits they deserve," said Maher.
Verticchio, who was wounded during the Vietnam War, said he has a great deal of respect and gratitude for the nurses who serve in the military. "These ladies put their lives on hold and stepped up. This is the least our country can do for them. Anyone who serves this country [deserves recognition]," he added.