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Women in Military Health

For centuries, women have made heroic and historic contributions on the front lines of military medicine — even as history often denied them rank, uniform, and recognition.

By Presidential proclamations since 1987, March is designated as Women's History Month, and this year’s theme is Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories. We’re honored to tell you some of their stories.

Let’s explore the journeys of just a few of the many female pioneers who devoted their lives and talents to the health of our warfighters — in the face of restrictions against them — as well as today’s trailblazers who continue to serve, innovate, and inspire military health efforts worldwide.

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A timeline of trailblazers and the women they inspired who are making history in their own time: 

1861 Dorothea Dix

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Dorothea Dix was an early 19th century activist who transformed the medical field during her lifetime. She championed causes for both the mentally ill and indigenous populations. Two months after the Civil War began, Dix was appointed as the superintendent of women nurses for the Union Army. In this role, she organized and outfitted the Union Army hospitals and oversaw about 6,000 women who served the federal forces during the war, transforming the field of nursing.

1861 Susie King Taylor

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Born into slavery in Georgia, Susie King Taylor is known for being the first Black nurse during the American Civil War. Taylor treated wounded soldiers in the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment. An educator and an author, Taylor wrote about her military service in her memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers. Taylor also organized the 67th Corps of the Women's Relief Corps in 1886.

1862 Phoebe Pember

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During the Civil War, Phoebe Pember became the first female administrator of the Chimborazo Hospital near Richmond, VA. Her job was to head up one of its five divisions — unprecedented for a woman. The ravages of war created a shortage of food, medicine, and other hospital supplies, but that didn't stop Pember’s dedication to relieving the suffering of the wounded. She was often simply a final companion for dying soldiers.

1865 Mary E Walker

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Mary E. Walker is the first woman to be appointed as an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army. She is also the only woman, to date, to have received the Medal of Honor, the U.S. government's highest and most prestigious military decoration.

1881 Clara Barton

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Clarissa (Clara) Harlowe Barton is one of the most honored women in American history. She began teaching school at a time when most teachers were men, and she was among the first women to gain employment in the federal government. Barton risked her life to bring supplies and support to soldiers in the field during the Civil War. She founded the American Red Cross in 1881 and led it for the next 23 years.

1898 Anita Newcomb McGee

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Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee received her medical degree in 1892. Her organizing ability led to her appointment, during the Spanish-American War of 1898, as the only woman acting assistant surgeon in the Army, where she was placed in charge of the Army's nurses. While serving as the assistant surgeon general, McGee wrote a bill to establish a Nurse Corps, which eventually became Section 19 of the Army Reorganization Act of 1901. She became known as the "Founder of the Army Nurse Corps." Dr. McGee also led efforts to erect the Spanish-American War Nurses Monument at Arlington National Cemetery, dedicated in 1905.

1901 Dita H. Kinney

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After working in private duty nursing and several institutions, in September 1898, Dita Kinney signed a contract with the Army and began her career at the general hospital at the Presidio of San Francisco, California. She was assigned as Chief Nurse of a proposed 1,800 bed hospital which would be located at Nagasaki, Japan. The hospital mission would be to care for the allied casualties from the Boxer uprising in China. In March 1901, Kinney was appointed the first superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps.

1906 Marie Equi

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This childhood tuberculosis survivor and high school dropout made an indelible mark on women in military medical history. Overcoming many hardships, Marie Equi eventually became a physician. She was the only female doctor who joined a relief mission that responded to the 1906 San Francisco fire and earthquake. Her contributions there landed her in charge of obstetrics at the United States Army General Hospital in San Francisco. She was subsequently decorated by the U.S. Army for her humanitarian efforts. Dr. Equi was also a Fellow of the American Medical Association.

1918 Josephine Bennett

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Josephine Bennett was the first female medical officer commissioned in the U.S. Army. During World War I, she joined as a contract surgeon with the rank of first lieutenant. Bennett taught hundreds of nurses and enlisted men the administration of anesthesia at Camp McClellan. The Army did not have uniforms for female surgeons, so Bennett designed one herself. She was instructed not to wear insignia, but the commanding officer of the hospital gave her permission to wear a cord on her hat denoting lieutenant.

1918 Loy McAfee

Loy McAfee

Dr. Loy McAfee is a pioneer who was well respected for her extraordinary — and historically important — role in military medicine. After earning a Doctor of Medicine degree in 1904, McAfee worked in medical publishing. In 1918, she was appointed to Contract Surgeon with the United States Army office of the Surgeon General during World War I. In 1921, Dr. McAfee returned to a civilian post and to her medical publishing roots, completing a multivolume history, The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War, still acclaimed as an invaluable resource documenting many aspects of wartime medicine.

1934 Ruby Bradley

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A survivor of two wars, a prison camp, and near starvation, Col. Ruby Bradley is one of the most decorated women in U.S. military medical history. She joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps as a surgical nurse in 1934. She earned 34 medals and citations of bravery, including two Legion of Merit medals; two Bronze Stars; two Presidential Emblems; the World War II Victory Medal; the U.N. Service Medal; and the Florence Nightingale Medal, the Red Cross' highest international honor. She was the third woman in U.S. history at that time to earn the rank of colonel.

1941 Annie G. Fox

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Annie Fox was the first woman in American military history to ever receive a Purple Heart. As Head Nurse of the Station Hospital at Hickam Field, Hawaii, in 1941, she led a team of nurses who worked frantically to treat hundreds of victims of the Japanese airborne attacks on Pearl Harbor. Fox was promoted to the rank of major before retiring from the service in 1945.

1941 Margaret Chung

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Dr. Margaret "Mom" Chung was the first Chinese American woman to become a physician. During World War II she and her "adopted sons," American soldiers who called her "Mom," became famous. She hosted movie stars, politicians, and top military brass at gatherings in her San Francisco home. Dr. Chung used her influence to support the Allied war effort, and lobbied for the creation of the WAVES, the U.S. Naval Women's Reserve. Although she faced prejudice because of her race, gender, and sexuality, Dr. Chung made a distinctive mark on military and community health.

1941 Margaret Craighill

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Dr. Craighill was the first woman doctor to receive a military commission. She was responsible for inspecting the "field conditions of all women in the United States Army." She also was the women's consultant to the Surgeon General of the Army. In that role, Craighill was in charge of the Women’s Health and Welfare Unit. She also created the standards for the process of WAC medical care.

1943 Elsie S. Ott

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So many firsts (for the U.S. Military and 2nd Lt. Elsie S. Ott) make this woman's place in military history especially notable. The U.S. Military had never carried out an air evacuation. Likewise, Ott had never flown in a plane, nor did she have any air evacuation training. But in January 1943, on the first U.S. intercontinental air evacuation flight, the inexperienced Ott earned her stripes — literally. She endured a 6-day flight and successfully oversaw the movement of five critically ill patients from India to Washington, D.C. Ott was awarded the first Air Medal in recognition of her heroism in determining a way to evacuate the wounded from the front line. She also received formal flight nurse training.

1944 Regina Benson

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After graduating from nursing school in 1944, Regina Benson, a McLean, Virginia native, joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. Benson’s four brothers were also serving at the time; her sense of patriotism followed in their footsteps. Benson was stationed at hospitals and operating rooms in Hawaii and Okinawa, Japan. While crossing the Pacific, the ship Benson was aboard narrowly escaped capsizing as it traveled through the eye of a typhoon. Benson served through the Battle of Okinawa, working 12-hour shifts administering medical care and comfort to wounded soldiers. After finishing military service, Benson continued her nursing career. In 2020, Benson was awarded the Joint Service Achievement Medal and the Armed Services YMCA Angel of the Battlefield Award for meritorious service. But to Benson, the most rewarding part of her military career was, in her own words, that ”My patients never died alone. I was always there with them so that I could tell their mothers that they did not die alone.”

1948 Frances L Willoughby

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When World War II began, the U.S. government solicited young doctors to enlist. Frances L. Willoughby was one of them. As a woman, though, she was not permitted to join the regular forces, and was assigned to the Naval Reserve. In October 1948, Willoughby made military medical history being sworn in as the first woman doctor to serve in the regular Navy, and for the following year was the only woman doctor in the U.S. Armed Forces. In 1950, she became the first woman with the permanent rank of commander and became staff psychiatrist at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia, where she served until her retirement in 1964.

1950 Faye Abdellah

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Faye Abdellah was the first nurse officer to earn the ranking of a two-star rear admiral. She was the first nurse and the first woman to serve as a Deputy Surgeon General. Abdellah's work changed the focus of nursing from disease-centered to patient-centered and The Patient Assessment of Care Evaluation developed by Abdellah is now the standard used in the United States. Her publications include Better Nursing Care Through Nursing Research and Patient-Centered Approaches to Nursing. She also developed educational materials in many areas of public health, including AIDS, hospice care, and drug addiction. Abdellah was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2000.

1961 Maragethe Cammermeyer

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Maragethe Cammermeyer joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1961. She was the VA Nurse of the Year in 1985, earned the Bronze Star for Service in Vietnam, was Chief Nurse of the Washington National Guard, and earned a Ph.D. in Nursing Science. During her military career, she challenged policies that discriminated against married women, and married women who became pregnant. She was so decorated, in fact, that after she came out as lesbian, her story drew wide attention. The result? A lawsuit ruling by a U.S. District Court that deemed her discharge and the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military as unconstitutional.

1970 Anna Mae Hayes

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After graduating high school with honors, Anna Mae Hayes enrolled in the American Red Cross. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and inspired to answer the call of duty, Hayes joined the Army Nurse Corps. In that role, she led efforts to increase educational opportunities, recruit qualified nurses, and enforce stronger standards. She rose through the ranks becoming the 13th Chief of the Army Nurse Core and the first woman in the U.S. Armed Forces to wear the insignia of a brigadier general.

1981 Sheryl Underwood

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If her name sounds familiar, you may know her from the CBS show "The Talk." But Sheryl Underwood, also a comedian and actress, got her start in a different theatre: the U.S. Air Force. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, she served duties at Travis, Maxwell, Sheppard, and Castle Air Force Bases. Later, she moved to Chicago and joined the O'Hare Air Reserve Station, at O'Hare Field. She deployed in support of several exercises in West and South Korea. Eventually she forged her post-military career in Hollywood, but her service to country didn't wane; Underwood found the time to entertain the troops through USO tours in Kuwait and Afghanistan.

1983 Patricia Horoho

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Patricia Horoho's career in military medicine is prolific: 33 years with the U.S. Army retiring as Lieutenant General, the 43rd Army Surgeon General, and Commander of the U.S. Army Medical Command. As Surgeon General, she fully revamped warrior care, allowing army medicine to offer better care options for soldiers. Horoho was recognized as a Nurse Hero after administering first aid to 75 individuals following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Her military awards include the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, France's National Order of Legion of Honour Chevalier (Knight), Japan’s Defense Cooperation Award Second Class, and the President's Lifetime Achievement award.

1990 Raquel Bono

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For nearly three decades, Dr. Bono, a board-certified trauma surgeon, forged her distinction as a highly respected Naval Officer. She is the first woman surgeon in the military to hold the rank of Vice Admiral. As the former CEO and Director of the Defense Health Agency, Bono led a joint, integrated support agency that enabled all branches of the U.S. military medical services to provide health care services to combatant commands. She integrated an unprecedented $50 billion worldwide health care enterprise comprised of hundreds of facilities that provide care to 9.5 million military beneficiaries. With dozens of military health leadership positions and just as many honors, Dr. Bono is an inspiration and role model for all surgeons — especially women surgeons everywhere.

1992 Mae Jemison

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As a doctor, engineer, and NASA astronaut, Mae Jemison became the first African American woman physician to travel in space. On her first flight, she was the science mission specialist on STS-47 Spacelab-J. Jemison was a co-investigator on the bone cell research experiment flown on the mission.

1993 Telita Crosland

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Telita Crosland joined the Army as a Medical Corps Officer in 1993. She is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. During her three decades of service, she has garnered the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Joint Service Achievement Medal, Army Staff Badge, and the Parachutist's Badge. On Jan. 3, 2023, U.S. Army Maj. Gen Crosland made history becoming the DHA's fourth director in its nearly 10-year existence, serving also as the first African American DHA director.

1993 Tanya Johnson

Womens History Month 2023 Tanya Johnson

Tanya Johnson entered the Air Force in October 1993. She graduated Medical Laboratory Apprentice Technical Training Course in December 1994. Johnson has served as a Clinical Laboratory technician, Protocol Assistant for the 375th Airlift Wing Commander, and Executive Assistant to both the Aeronautical System Center and Air Education and Training Command, Command Chief Master Sergeant. Johnson has deployed in support of Operation United Assistance, Operation Inherent Resolve, and Operation Deliberate Resolve. On March 10, 2023, Chief Master Sergeant Tanya Johnson was ceremoniously named Senior Enlisted Leader of the Defense Health Agency (DHA). She is DHA’s first female enlisted senior leader.

1995 Lynelle Boamah

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How did the sometimes homeless kid who lost her dad to gun violence wind up advising military leaders on the health and wellness of an entire region of troops? According to Navy Capt. Lynelle Boamah, it was her determination, invaluable mentors, and her sister's urging to join the U.S. Navy. Boamah, a board-certified pediatric gastroenterologist was the first black female Medical Corps commanding officer to lead the Navy Medical Readiness and Training Command in Twentynine Palms, California. In July 2021 Boamah became U.S. Third Fleet surgeon for San Diego-based fleet's leadership on all things medical. In January 2023, a Maritime Headquarters was established at the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Falls Church, Virginia. Later that year, Capt. Boamah was named its Director of Maritime Operations.

2001 Tawanna McGhee-Thondique

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Col. Tawana McGhee-Thondique, an Alabama native, has been making history since she commissioned into the U.S. Army in 2001 as the first female African American Oral & Maxillofacial Surgeon in the Army Dental Corps. Armed with a bachelor of science degree in dental hygiene, a doctorate in dental sciences, and certification in oral and maxillofacial surgery, it’s no wonder that McGhee-Thondique has served our nation around the globe in a host of leadership positions in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. Among many firsts, McGhee-Thondique was the first female to command the only dual-hatted dental command in the Army: the 618th Dental Company (Area Support)/Dental Health Activity - Korea. She was also the first female to serve as the Director, Dental Directorate, MEDCOM G-3/5/7, and the first female Principal Deputy to the Assistant Director for Healthcare Administration. In 2023, McGhee-Thondique became the inaugural director of the Defense Health Support Activity, Defense Health Agency.

2006 Marie Urso

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After earning her degree as a Doctor of Philosophy in Kinesiology from the University of Massachusetts, Maria Urso was commissioned into the U.S. Army, serving four years as a captain. Urso won the highest honor given by the U.S. government for her research at the U.S. Army's Research Institute of Environmental Medicine on musculoskeletal injury and repair, specializing in new therapies that might be used to treat blunt-force trauma and blast injuries. Capt. Urso also received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor the U.S. government gives to science and engineering professionals in the early stages of a research career. In addition to her contributions to science and the armed services, Capt. Urso competed to help the women's All-Army marathon team win a silver medal.

2013 Nadja West

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Dr. Nadja West's military health service spans decades of strategic and operational experience, national and international executive leadership, and health care management. With a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering from West Point and an M.D. from The George Washington University, Dr. West quickly ascended U.S Army ranks while making history along the way. In 2013, she became the first African American female Major General. On Dec. 11, 2015, West was promoted to lieutenant general by the Senate and became the Army's first black Surgeon General, the Army's first black woman to hold the rank of lieutenant general, and the Army's highest ranked woman graduate of West Point. After retiring from military service, she was appointed to the Board of Directors at Johnson & Johnson, where she is valued for her accomplished health care leadership and distinguished commitment to public service.

2016 Keersten Ricks

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A rising star in military medical research, civilian Keersten Ricks, Ph.D., is a Branch Chief, research microbiologist, and investigator within the diagnostic systems division at United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases. Among the many hats that Dr. Ricks wears at USAMRID is designing and deploying field-forward immunodiagnostics not only to protect the warfighter but to increase public health potential in underdeveloped nations.

2017 Jennifer Stowe

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At the 2022 Military Health System Research Symposium: Young Investigators Competition, Jennifer Stowe presented research on "Forward Operating Base Expert Telemedicine Resource Utilizing Mobile Application for Trauma (FOXTROT)." Stowe's team conducted research focused on eye trauma and ophthalmic surgery interventions. With so many service members being deployed to remote locations, it was necessary to find a way to provide ophthalmic care to any post. Using the remote application of telemedicine, medical personnel in these areas can better diagnose eye injuries in the field. In many cases, her research made the difference between diminished sight or outright loss of sight. U.S. Army Col. Jennifer Stowe was the Science Program Administrator at USAARL San Antonio until her retirement in November of 2023. 

2019 Jennifer Soliz

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Dr. Jennifer Soliz leads a team of U.S. Army scientists at the CCDC Chemical Biological Center who are developing materials that will help soldiers with potential toxic chemical threat detection on the battlefield. Soliz's latest discovery, on which she holds the patent, detects hazardous chemical threats by changing color in their presence. This research innovation will protect warfighters by detecting chemical threats and executing proper action.

2020 Telisha Johnson

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As COVID-19 crippled America's hospitals, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Telisha Johnson, Chief Nurse for the 113th Medical Group, D.C. Air National Guard, jumped at the call to help mitigate the spread. Johnson was deployed to the D.C. Department of Health to plan an alternate care site to alleviate hospital overcrowding due to COVID-19. She trained personnel and became operations chief. Johnson has recently been overseeing the distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations for military personnel. Unrelated to her COVID-19 medical service, Johnson was presented the Meritorious Service Medal (along with five other soldiers) during a ceremony at the Pentagon Aug. 19, 2020, for their heroic efforts that saved a person's life at the Lincoln Memorial June 4.

2021 Katie Lunning

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An ICU nurse serving part-time in the Minnesota National Guard, Lunning jumped at an opportunity to help carry out a short-notice deployment mission with the 379th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. In a tense and deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Lunning was the only CCATT nurse in the region. She endured two weeks of life-saving humanitarian missions — saving hundreds of lives — in the unprecedented Operation Allies Refuge and the evacuation of Kabul in August 2021. For her bravery under fire in the single largest aeromedical evacuation airlift in Kabul Coalition Hospital's history, she received the Distinguished Flying Cross in January 2023 — the first Air National Guard flight nurse to receive it.

2022 Rebecca Bieber

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Rebecca Bieber Au.D., Ph.D., and research audiologist at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, received top honors during the 2022 Military Health System Research Symposium: Young Investigators Competition. Her research focused on "Evaluating the Impacts of Hearing Protection on Fire Team Lethality, Survivability, Communication, and Mission Success in Dismounted Combat." Bieber's work collected new data by evaluating and monitoring diverse types of exercises with various hearing protections, which can help lead to better hearing protection on the battlefield.

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Last Updated: October 30, 2023
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