- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Abby Griffin
Best Defense guest columnist
Recently a fellow U.S. Military Academy graduate posted in the “West Point Women” Facebook group asking for information about graduates who have gone on to become nurses. In the first day, 17 graduates spanning from 1989 to 2006 replied. All left the Army to become nurses. These replies came only from the small pool of female graduates who belong to the group who actually saw the post. I wondered how many other USMA-grads-turned-nurses exist, and questioned why USMA does not have a nursing program. As far as I’m aware, the Nurse Corps is the only branch offered through ROTC but not USMA.
Nurses have a long and distinguished service history in the Army, officially starting with the foundation of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901. 21,480 women served as Army nurses in WWI; 10,000 of these served on the battlefields of Europe. During WWII, more than 50,000 women served as nurses both stateside and overseas. In 1942, 66 Army nurses were caught on Bataan and imprisoned by the Japanese for three years. Even while imprisoned, they continued to function as a professional nursing unit. They all survived and were awarded Bronze Stars when they returned to the United States.
Nursing was one of the first areas in which women were able to break the military’s glass ceiling. Brig. Gen. Anna Hays was the Army’s first female general, and she served as a nurse in both WWII and Korea. Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho is currently serving as the first female Army surgeon general, and she is also the first nurse to hold the position previously filled by doctors. On Sunday, First Lieutenant Jennifer Moreno, an Army nurse serving with a Special Forces cultural support team, was killed in action in Afghanistan. Army nurses have proven time and again that they are capable of stepping up to the plate in both times of war and peace.
I truly believe there is a need for USMA educated officers in nursing, and that the profession of nursing nests perfectly within the values USMA promotes and encourages in its graduates, such as quick and decisive critical thinking, selfless service, ethical decision making, autonomy, and a calm demeanor under pressure. The standard career path of the Army nurse progresses beyond bedside care by the rank of senior O3/O4, and requires officers to become managers and administrators responsible for both patients and subordinates. Quality leadership is critical, and (at least I have found) it quickly becomes glaringly obvious when a nurse’s position exceeds his or her leadership training/ability. Just like in a regular Army unit, weak leadership degrades the ability of the nursing unit to perform, with the potential for life and death consequences. The Army Nurse Corps has a strong need for quality, trained leaders — perhaps even more so than some branches USMA offers now, such as Finance and Adjutant Generals Corps.
Of course, there would be critics who say that it is USMA’s primary mission to breed combat leaders and who would dismiss the notion of a nursing program at USMA. I strongly disagree. The stated mission of West Point is “to educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army.” It is of paramount importance to have “leaders of character” dedicated to a “career of professional excellence” in all branches of the Army, but particularly in healthcare. Army healthcare professionals are entrusted with the lives and well-being of soldiers on a daily basis, regardless of whether or not a war exists. The relationship between a patient and a healthcare provider is sacred. A patient comes to a healthcare professional vulnerable, and expects that professional to be more than human. A patient trusts that a healthcare professional will not gossip, let personal upsets or worries impact care, pass judgment, or make mistakes. Healthcare professionals need to be constantly vigilant and ethical. They need to be true people of character, able to advocate for a patient regardless of outside influences. They have great power and responsibility, and absolutely need to always do the right thing even when nobody else is watching. These are all qualities West Point emphasizes.
In terms of the logistical element, USMA already offers all of the common prerequisites needed for nursing school, such as microbiology, biology, chemistry, statistics, sociology, psychology, anatomy and physiology, life cycle and human development, and nutrition. Keller Army Community Hospital is on post for clinicals, and what Keller can’t offer can surely be found by partnering with local nursing programs (such as Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, for example) and nearby hospitals to share clinical resources. Nursing could be a limited access major, and all nursing students could follow the same academic trajectory through the program, thus cutting down on the number of faculty needed. Nurses educated at West Point would not only graduate as BSN prepared nurses, but they would also possess the leadership and decision-making skills instilled at and emphasized by USMA.
I have been told the party line is that it’s more economical to commission nurses from ROTC and OCS. That glib answer seems to be an argument against USMA’s very existence. Isn’t that statement essentially true for all Army branches? Isn’t there an added leadership and cultural element that justifies USMA as a commissioning source despite the cost? If that is indeed the case, why does USMA expend money and time preparing a handful of cadets to go to medical school, or to branch Chemical Corps, Finance, AG, and the other low-density branches? There are countless opportunities for continuing education in nursing, to mitigate any concern of a graduate becoming “just a nurse” (a marginalizing phrase that boils my blood). Nurses can become educators, researchers, and advanced level care providers, such as nurse practitioners and Doctors of Nursing Practice. In fact, the increasing trend in U.S. healthcare is to push primary care down to the physician assistant/nurse practitioner level. The educational and professional opportunities for nurses are dynamic and endless, and I think USMA is missing out by not having a role in this career field. It is not a “soft” career for the meek or mild. It is blood and guts and tears and sweat and heavy lifting and long hours — in sum, a career field I believe has a need for USMA graduates.
I truly think my decision to leave the Army would have been different had I been able to commission as a nurse from USMA. I know now, with budgetary concerns, the possibility of starting a new major is unlikely and may sound ridiculous to some. Until 1985, West Point cadets did not pick a major. Today, USMA offers 40 different academic majors, and they exist because at one point someone said “Why not?”
Abby Griffin is a 2005 West Point graduate who left the Army in 2010 to pursue her BSN at Florida State University. She is currently working in the solid organ transplant unit at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C.