ARLINGTON, Va. (WJHL) — The head of the National Memorial for Women Veterans in the United States is calling on Congress to grant honorary veteran status to the World War II U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps members.
“It’s so important that they be recognized in this way,” said Phyllis Wilson, President of the Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The memorial honors the 3 million women who served in or in support of the U.S. Military from the Revolutionary War to the present. At the memorial, visitors also will find a display telling the story of the Cadet Nurse Corps nurses who are not considered to be veterans in the eyes of the federal government.
“Very few Americans have heard of the 124,000 amazing American women who answered the call at 17, 18 or 19 years of age having no idea for how long they signed saying ‘I’ll serve,'” Wilson said.
Wilson, a retired nurse and U.S. Army veteran, said the women who enlisted were responding to a call for help during a crisis – a national nursing shortage that crippled military and civilian hospitals in the mid to late 1940s.
“That was the greatest nursing shortage this nation has ever seen to date,” she said “Eighty percent of the nursing positions across the continental United States were empty because those registered nurses had deployed over to either Europe or the Pacific theater of war.”
Wilson said the Cadet Nurses joined with the understanding they would serve wherever they were sent until the war was over – no matter how long that would take.
“They signed a contract that said ‘I will pledge myself for the duration of the war,'” she said. “They said ‘I will take the training and continue to serve for however long World War II lasts.'”
In recent years, support has been growing to grant the Cadet Nurse Corps members honorary veteran status, with some of the surviving corps members leading the call for action in Congress.
“They wanted help, and I went and helped in the only way I knew how to do it,” said Agnes Lowe of Johnson City, a former Cadet Nurse who joined when she was 17 years old.
For years, Lowe said she’s lobbied for legislation granting honorary veteran status to the Cadet Nurse Corps members. The law has made it through committees but has never gone before Congress in a final vote.
“I think we deserve it because we answered the call,” Lowe told News Channel 11 in an interview last month. “I consider myself a veteran even though we’ve never been granted veteran status.”
After Lowe’s story aired on News Channel 11, U.S. Rep. Diana Harshbarger (R-Kingsport) joined as a co-sponsor of the United States Cadet Nurse Corps Service Recognition Act of 2021. Harshbarger telephoned Lowe to thank her for her service and to tell her she’s supporting the legislation, her office confirmed.
U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), who sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs and Armed Services Committees, has not agreed to co-sponsor the legislation. But this week, a spokesman said Blackburn supports the legislation and said it’s now in the hands of Democratic leadership.
“Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer needs to bring this legislation to a vote on the Senate floor,” a Blackburn spokesman said. “We appreciate all who served in the Cadet Nurse Corp, which is why Senator Blackburn supported this bill in the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. We hope Schumer will honor these nurses with this well-deserved recognition.”
Senator Bill Hagerty (R-Tennessee) hasn’t agreed to co-sponsor the legislation either. Last month, a Hagerty spokesman told News Channel 11 that Hagerty supports moving the Cadet Nurse Corps Service Recognition Act to the Senate floor for debate, “while in the meantime reviewing it carefully to determine whether it serves in the best interest of our honorable service members.”
Wilson said any further delay in honoring the nurses doesn’t make sense, especially since the few surviving members of the Corps are all above the age of 90 years old.
“They’re not asking for any benefits except a flag on their casket or a medallion on their gravestone to identify that they stepped forward and raised their hand and signed a contract – unlike anything I’ve ever heard of in my life,” Wilson said.
Regardless of what’s decided on Capitol Hill, Wilson said the Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery will continue to tell their story.
“If not for these women that answered this call, what would we have become?” she said. “If they’re not veterans, I don’t know who is.”
The Military Women’s Memorial is about to mark its 25th anniversary. Learn more about the memorial and the anniversary celebration plans here.
To nominate a local veteran for News Channel 11’s weekly feature, click here.