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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.
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. (Madeleine Mysko)

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?

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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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