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Wreath-laying ceremony marks start of National Nurses Week

The MHS wreath presented at the beginning of National Nurses Week at the 3rd annual wreath laying ceremony stands against the stained-glass backdrop of Tiffany Circle Hall at the American Red Cross headquarters, Washington, D.C. (MHS photo) The MHS wreath presented at the beginning of National Nurses Week at the 3rd annual wreath laying ceremony stands against the stained-glass backdrop of Tiffany Circle Hall at the American Red Cross headquarters, Washington, D.C. (MHS photo)

The Military Health System held its third annual National Nurses Week wreath-laying ceremony Monday, May 6, 2019, at the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C.  Nearly 100 guests, including dignitaries and luminaries of military nursing, filled Tiffany Circle Hall to honor the contributions, sacrifices, and bravery of past and present military and civilian nurses.

National Nurses Week, an annual event that starts each May 6, concludes on May 12, the birthday of Florence Nightingale, internationally regarded as the founder of modern nursing. “Nurses are superheroes” is the theme for the MHS’s weeklong celebration this year.

In her remarks during the live-streamed ceremony, Navy Rear Adm. Mary Riggs, the Defense Health Agency's deputy assistant director for research and development and interim chief nursing officer, complimented nurses for their teamwork and sacrifices. “Nurses in every setting – whether aboard a ship at sea, in a civilian urgent care clinic, teaching in a classroom, or volunteering for a humanitarian mission overseas – are nurses who are performing heroic acts every single day.”

Riggs also provided a historical perspective of how nurses have provided vital services and care on and off the battlefield since the Revolutionary War. She noted how momentum for the profession of nursing gained traction in the 1860s during the American Civil War, under the direction of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. Riggs described how the founding of the Army Nurse Corps after the Spanish American War expanded to the establishment of the Navy and Air Force Nurse Corps.

“We’ve only scratched the surface of the significant roles nurses have played throughout history,” said Riggs, recognizing today’s nurses as women and men in diverse roles across the Military Health System who follow in the footsteps of pioneering nurse leaders.

Dr. Linda MacIntyre, chief nurse of the American Red Cross and chairperson of the Federal Nursing Service Council, highlighted one such leader, Jane Delano, superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps, who also served as chair of the National Committee on Red Cross Nursing Service. In the early 1900s, Delano realized the need for a ready supply of nurses in the event of military conflict. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Delano mobilized over 20,000 nurse volunteers to care for the sick and wounded, both at home and abroad.

The American Red Cross hosted today’s wreath laying ceremony for the first time.  MacIntyre explained the significance, stating, “Understanding the shared military – Red Cross history provides insight into today’s challenges and helps ground us. For over 130 years, Red Cross nurses have provided comfort and support to members of the military, veterans and their families in communities across the world.”

Today, more than 27,000 nurses work in the Department of Defense and the U.S. Public Health Service. 

“We are more than caregivers,” said Army Maj. Gen. Barbara Holcomb, chief of the Army Nurse Corps and Commanding General, U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and Fort Detrick, Maryland. “Nurses are patient advocates, administrators, program managers, educators, researchers, and clinic leaders who take on some of the most challenging positions across the Military Health System. Our capabilities span a wide range of specialties from disease management and behavioral health to flight and combat medicine.”

Holcomb concluded her keynote address expressing gratitude for all nurses, highlighting the men and women in uniform who inspire her by their sense of purpose and their character. “Thank you for being a part of the profession of nursing; thank you for your dedication, compassion, and selfless service to the nation,” she said. “Let us continue to innovate, empathize and care for America’s sons and daughters as only a nurse can.”

At the ceremony, Mr. Reese Brown, a retired U.S. Army nurse and current public affairs specialist at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, sang the national anthem; Chaplain Kim Donahue, service chief of pastoral care services at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, delivered the invocation; and Air Force Col. Julie Stola, command nurse and chief of force development for the Air Force District of Washington, served as the ceremony’s emcee.

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