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Op-ed

A half-century after joining the Army Nurse Corps, a woman reflects on the long-ago choice, made as a girl | GUEST COMMENTARY

Upon her commission into the Army Nurse Corps, Madeleine Mysko, (then Madeleine Seipp), a 1967 graduate of Mercy Hospital School of Nursing, shakes the hand of the Army recruiter in the woman's Baltimore office in 1969.

About Veterans Day: I know people are fond of this federal holiday as an opportunity to thank members of our military. But to my way of thinking, a celebration of the military — past or current members — should never have supplanted the old Armistice Day on the calendar. Once upon a time on Nov. 11, we would solemnly commemorate the declaration of peace in 1918, when arms were laid down, a terrible world war ended.

Still, I understand that for many Americans, deep respect for the defenders of our country goes hand in hand with deep love of one’s country. People I love dearly have sent me messages of appreciation on Veterans Day. They’ve posted old photos of me in uniform. They’re genuinely proud of their sister, their mom, their Nana. I worry they’ll be hurt by this darkness in my heart.

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I’m a member of the Baltimore chapter of Veterans for Peace. The other night, at a virtual meeting, we went around the screen telling our stories — how we came to serve, when and where. I was suddenly tongue-tied. It’s getting so I can’t get an honest answer from the girl I was back in 1969. I used to say I joined the Army Nurse Corps because I wanted to care for wounded boys of my own generation. Sometimes I’d add that I was a child of alcoholics, and the Army offered adventure and escape.

So, at the meeting, I just stated what I knew for sure wasn’t the reason: “It wasn’t that I wanted to serve my country.” Unlike the young people who signed up after 9/11 to defend their country after an attack, I knew nothing back then about Vietnam, or why there was a draft, or what our soldiers were actually defending. I didn’t read the news. I didn’t discuss the war with my parents — tragic, because my father served in the Navy during World War II, and it’s only now, years after his death at age 49, that I learn some veterans never do recover from their wartime experiences. My father never spoke of his.

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I saw my aging face then on the screen, surrounded by my friends in their own little squares. They were nodding. I didn’t need to explain to them. “I was young,” I said with a shrug, “impulsive.”

Today, while rummaging through old books, I found one from my childhood: “Cherry Ames, Army Nurse” by Helen Wells. Inside the cover there’s a fierce-looking eagle carrying a banner: “Books are weapons in the war of ideas.” Cherry Ames is a “Wartime Book … produced in full compliance with the government’s regulation for conserving paper and other materials.” Twice then on one page: the word “war.” It was published in 1944, two years before I was born.

I sat down and read. Cherry Ames, R.N., receives her orders to active duty. She can barely contain her excitement: “Cherry’s red cheeks and lips, her shining dark eyes, her eager, lively, pretty face, even her dancing black curls, fairly radiated vitality.” Though she weighs barely a hundred pounds, she passes the physical. On the post where she reports for duty, the “numbers of young men in khaki uniform … looked half familiar to her, like her friends and schoolmates, like her own brother.” Some seemed lonesome to Cherry, some tired, others deep in thought. Her own thought: “These are the boys I’m going to take care of.”

So, there it was between the brittle pages of the book I adored when I was a girl of about 12: war and military service as romance, youth and vitality in uniform, rosy-cheeked determination to face the enemy, to look out for each other until the war was over. Cherry Ames is a fictional character in a “wartime book,” but I don’t think she’s a myth or the fluff of propaganda. There are veterans out there today who, like Cherry, went off to their wars — in Europe and the Pacific, in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan — “fairly radiating vitality” and full of ideals. Who doesn’t love them and want to thank them?

I do not ask cynically. I ask with tears in my eyes. I loved the spunky Cherry Ames when I was 12, and I love her still. But the book doesn’t tell what happened to her after she witnessed the pain, the deaths, the disfigurations of body and soul — what we call moral injuries today, the real cost of war.

Madeleine Mysko (mmysko@comcast.net) is a novelist, contributing editor to the American Journal of Nursing and a member of the Baltimore chapter of Veterans for Peace; she served in the Army Nurse Corps at the Brooke Army Medical Center during the Vietnam War.


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