Women who served in WWII Cadet Nurse Corps seek veterans status
Audrey Munz, working the overnight shift at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, remembers finding herself responsible for scores of patients.
It was 1944. She was just 18 and weeks earlier had been recruited into the Cadet Nurse Corps to help fill a wartime shortage of nurses.
"Beside being scared to death, it was exciting," said Munz, 87, of Port Washington, who worked in the cancer and pediatrics wards.
Munz is among a dwindling number of Long Island women who during World War II answered the call for volunteers by training under a U.S. Public Health Service program.
Now, she and other former nurse cadets are asking to be granted veteran status -- and the benefits that come with it.
The lingering denial, they say, is another example of how women and minorities were denied equal treatment during the war. They point out that the Women's Auxilliary Army Corps was denied veteran status until 1980.
"We were available and did heavy duty during the war to keep the hospitals staffed," Munz said. "They praised us highly. But that was as far as it went."
Established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 15, 1943, the Cadet Nurse Corps invited female high school graduates between the ages of 17 and 35 to enroll, regardless of race. Enrollees promised to serve in "military or essential civilian nursing throughout the war."
By 1948, the program graduated 124,065 nurses, including more than 3,000 African-Americans, 350 Japanese and 40 American Indians.
But with legislation that would confer veteran status to the nurses being thwarted in every Congress since Westchester Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Rye) first introduced it in the late 1990s, supporters worry that the last of the nurses will die before ever receiving the health, disability and burial benefits they deserve.
Doris Maher, who joined the corps in 1943 and trained at Sampson Naval Hospital, south of Syracuse, advocated for recognition for more than a decade, said her daughter, Patricia Maher of East Meadow. But Doris, also of East Meadow, died last year at 88, without seeing her wish fulfilled.
"It was a gender issue," Patricia Maher said. "Women were expected to go home and get married, so why would they need benefits? But this issue became critical in the '90s when their husbands died. Where were their benefits then?"
Opponents say veteran status for the nurses is inappropriate because they were never in the military. The program did not require the cadets to join the service, submit to military discipline or bar them from leaving the program whenever they wanted to.
At a 2009 congressional hearing, Bradley Mayes, the VA's director of benefits, testified against the Lowey bill, noting that the Defense Department in 1979 and again in 1993 had asserted that enrollment in the cadet program did not qualify as military service.
"Participants were neither employees of the federal government nor legally obligated to future government service," Mayes said, according to a transcript. "They received federal scholarships while attending nursing schools . . . and they were allowed to resign at any time."
After the war, many of the cadet nurses got married and raised families. But large numbers also found work in hospitals and clinics. Some continued their nursing education and went into administration.
Maher earned a doctorate in nursing education from Columbia University, her daughter said, and in the late 1970s served as a dean at the Medical College of Georgia. She later was president of a New York regional chapter of the National League of Nursing.
But as their husbands have died, many of the nurses say their lack of veteran's benefits, including subsidized medical and dental care, has hurt.
Eleanor Moffatt, 86, of Lynbrook, said Medicare does not cover some of the medical procedures she could use, and that she has not been to a dentist in two years.
"We had uniforms, and we also promised we would stay in active duty until the war was over," she said. "How could we not be considered military?"
Munz, who has problems with her back and feet, said the wartime effort exposed many of the nurses to chronic injuries from lifting patients. She said Medicare alone is often inadequate, and that eligibility for veteran's medical benefits would be a boon to the aging women.
"We always felt that we should get some benefit. If not equal, at least some," Munz said.