Army Nurse Corps History
The Punitive Expedition
In the June 12, 1916, edition of the El Paso Herald the headline read, “Twelve Army Nurses Are Assigned to the Base Hospital at Fort Bliss.” Today, when Army nurses locate to a new post, no one informs the local media. Then, military nurses were a novelty. Since they were the only women allowed to serve in the armed forces; it might have been noteworthy to the press. This number was also cited in the newspaper because it was the first time military nurses were assigned to Fort Bliss and because the cohort represented nearly ten percent of all appointed Army nurses. What mission requirements had caused Superintendent Dora E. Thompson to assign such a large contingent of Army nurses to one small, but strategic base in the southwest desert? Ninety days earlier, the U.S. executed the Punitive Expedition against the Mexican outlaw, Pancho Villa.
The Punitive Expedition was set in motion on March 15, 1916. At the invitation of the Mexican Government, U.S. troops crossed the Mexican border in search of Pancho Villa in retaliation for Villa’s raid on the town of Columbus, New Mexico. Fort Bliss, located in far west Texas, became the major medical depot for this action, and the base hospital expanded to twice its size. Support personnel constructed 14 new wards to accommodate 500 patients. Army nurses were assigned to the hospital. Additionally, American Red Cross nurses, who were essentially the “Army Reserve Nurse Corps” of that era, were mobilized to provide nursing care for injured soldiers in field, camp and base hospitals along the border.
For the first time, motorized ambulances were used to move injured and sick soldiers back to the United States. Once patients had arrived in New Mexico, the fastest and most comfortable way to travel the 50 to 70 miles to Fort Bliss was by train rather than ambulances traversing over bumpy, unpaved roads. Fortunately, nursed had to tend to very few gunshot-wounded soldiers. Preventive Medicine also was highly successful and greatly decreased non-battle related casualties. Most hospitalized soldiers were either medical patients with heat injuries, venereal diseases and typhoid fever, or orthopedic patients injured in accidents or falls. Appendectomies were performed so frequently at the post hospital that the El Paso Herald called appendicitis ” the most frequent disease.”
Under the leadership of “Miss” (there was no military rank for women at that time) Mary C. Jorgensen, Chief Nurse, nurses immediately went to work at the Fort Bliss base hospital. The male corpsmen were challenged to step back and let the nurses take the lead in the patient care. Corpsmen resented the intrusion of these nurses and questioned the qualifications and training of the Red Cross nurses. Similarly, physicians preferred to deal directly with the corpsmen rather than working through the Army or Red Cross nurses.
The tact, professionalism, and dedication of these nurses eventually eliminated the doubts of corpsmen and doctors. Nurses expertly used cold packs to reduce fevers, particularly associated with typhoid fever. They procured mercury from the Quartermaster and constructed mercurial vapor bath for patients in the eruptive stages of syphilis. Nurses ensured that fewer surgical cases had post-surgical infections by properly sterilizing surgical equipment. They canvassed the community for “treats” for the bedridden. A local Irish organization brought “carnations and tobacco” for St. Patrick’s Day and local women provided “jams and jellies” to make the bland hospital food more enticing.