JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Agnes Lowe of Johnson City says, for her, it’s simple.
“I think we deserve it because we answered the call,” Lowe said.
The 96-year-old Johnson City retired nurse says she vividly remembers when she first heard about the crisis gripping America’s hospitals in mid-1943.
“All of the RN’s that had been currently working had gone into service,” Lowe said. “They needed nurses to care for the veterans and the people back home.”
Lowe remembers seeing the posters on walls and hearing ads on the radio calling on young women to “enlist” and serve their country in uniform through the newly-formed U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps.
An act of Congress established the Corp in June 1943. The war-era government quickly launched a public relations offensive enticing young women to enlist with a promise of free education, a lifetime career in nursing, military uniforms, and the chance to be called a senior nurse cadet.
Lowe signed up, got trained as a nurse, and spent six months at VA Mountain Home Hospital in Johnson City with the promise she’d stay until the war ended.
“I feel like I did what I could to help with the war effort, and it was what they asked us to do and we did it,” Lowe said.
By some estimates, 80% of the nurses in U.S. hospitals in 1945 were Cadet Nurses who enlisted in the Corps.
But the end of the war saw the return of deployed nurses to reclaim their healthcare jobs. By 1948, the U.S. Nurse Cadet Corps no longer was needed, and the Corps. was officially dissolved.
While veterans from across the branches of services came home to the thanks of a grateful nation and a lifetime commitment by the government to provide veterans benefits, the 124,000 Cadet Nurses faced a different outcome.
They found out they wouldn’t receive benefits and couldn’t even call themselves “veterans.”
Agnes Lowe says, almost 80 years later, she still can’t understand.
“We served our country,” she said. “That’s the theory I go by.”
Lowe continued to work as a VA nurse for decades. She stayed in Johnson City and raised a family. And she’s worked for years to bring recognition to the work of the U.S. Cadet Nurses Corps.
“I consider myself a veteran even though we’ve never been granted veteran status,” Lowe said.
It turns out Agnes Lowe isn’t the only one who thinks credit is long overdue.
“What a small thing to give,” said Dr. Barbara Poremba, a professor of nursing who lives in Massachusetts. “Can’t we let this last group be recognized for their contribution to their country in wartime?”
Poremba says she was stunned when, years ago, she met a cadet nurse and learned about their service to the country. “How did I not know this?” she said. “How does everyone not know what these women did?”
She promised that WW II-era nurse cadet she would work to bring the Corps the long-overdue recognition its members deserve.
Soon, Poremba founded the group “Friends of the United States Cadet Nurses Corps World War II”. She’s spent the last several years pushing for federal legislation honoring nurse cadets who she calls World War II’s forgotten veterans.
“It seems very simple to understand they were essential for the war effort,” Poremba said. And Poremba says the facts demonstrate they’re worthy of the title “veteran.”
Poremba says nurse cadets who transferred directly from the Corps into a branch of the military during World War II were given the incentive of six months of active duty credit for the six months they spent as a senior nurse cadet.
“If you gave cadet nurses who entered six months of active duty, why would you not give all cadet nurses six months of a active status?” Poremba said.
And she says the Corps was a model of what the U.S. military one day would become. It was the first war-time unit that was entirely non-sectarian and non-discriminatory based on race, ethnic origin, or creed. “What a beautiful thing that’s worthy of our respect and appreciation,” she said.
Multiple legislative attempts to give nurse cadets official veteran status have failed to pass in Congress, something Poremba calls baffling and an offense to the women who served.
“They’re not asking for any financial benefits or VA medical benefits,” Poremba said. “All they’re asking for is to be remembered for their service to their country with an American Flag and a flag on their grave. That’s it. That seems like a small ask.”
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Illinois) agrees.
“Despite their service during our nation’s time of need, they’ve never been bestowed veteran status,” Bustos said in a House Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs hearing on October 21, 2021. “My legislation would change that,” Bustos said.
She’s sponsoring H.R. 2568, the US Cadet Nurse Recognition Act.
“This bill does not provide burial rights at Arlington National Cemetery or additional VA benefits,” she testified. “It simply but importantly pays the nation’s respects to the incredible service by these women nearly 80 years ago.”
“Time is running out for our nation to thank and honor the few surviving cadet nurses for their service and sacrifice,” Rep. Bustos said.
A companion bill in the Senate received what’s called a favorable report from the Committee on Veteran’s Affairs in July 2021 with support from Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), a spokesman for Blackburn said.
But despite the congressional support, the bill still hasn’t become law.
Lowe says she’s proud to be one of those few surviving nurse cadets, and she’s proud of what she and her fellow nurses achieved even without a nation’s official gratitude.
“They wanted help, and I went and helped in the only way I knew how to do it,” Lowe said. “That’s what the government asked us to do. And we did it.”