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Fort Belvoir nursing chiefs in unique position as African Americans

Image of Two military personnel, wearing masks, in a meeting. Click to open a larger version of the image. Navy Capt. Jamesetta Goggins (left) and Army Col. Clausyl “C.J.” Plummer, deputy chief and chief nursing officers at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, meet in Plummer’s office on Feb. 2. (Photo by Reese Brown, Fort Belvoir Community Hospital Public Affairs.)

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Fort Belvoir Community Hospital at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, is in the unique position of having African Americans serving as both chief and deputy chief of nursing services. Army Col. Clausyl “C.J.” Plummer is the chief nursing officer, and Navy Capt. Jamesetta Goggins is deputy chief nursing officer.

“That has not happened in the history of this organization and it’s something I’m particularly proud of,” Plummer said.

African Americans in military medicine throughout history have paved the way for the professionals present in the ranks today, including the Nurse Corps.

In the Army Nurse Corps, Plummer noted, it started with Brig. Gen. Clara M. Adams-Ender, the 18th chief of the Army Nurse Corps. Adams-Ender was born in 1939 on a tobacco farm in Willow Springs, North Carolina. In 1987, after working as the chief of the department of nursing in the 97th General Hospital, chief of nurse recruiting at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and chief of the department of nursing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Adams-Ender was promoted to brigadier general and became the chief of the Army Nurse Corps.

In 1991, she was selected to be commanding general, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and served in that capacity as well as deputy commanding general of the U.S. Military District of Washington until her retirement in 1993. “Gen. Adams-Ender really paved the way as an example that we, as African Americans, have the competence, the poise and the strategic outlook to hold some of these positions,” Plummer said. “She was followed by [Army Brig.] Gen. [Bettye] Simmons, who was an African American female as well, and currently the deputy corps chief is Army Col. Lozay Foots III.”

Plummer said that, without people like Adams-Ender and Simmons, he likely wouldn’t be where he is today, and he still looks to his predecessors for inspiration.

Painted portrait of Army Brig. Gen. Clara M. Adams-Ender (Ret.)
Portrait of Army Brig. Gen. Clara M. Adams-Ender (Ret.), the 18th chief of the Army Nurse Corps. (Courtesy of Army Nurse Corps Association.)

“I stand on their shoulders,” Plummer said. “These are persons who have made this possible and continue to mentor us. All of the people I mentioned are still alive, and many of us will periodically tap into their wisdom.

“Had it not been for their competence and the chance that they were given, many of us would not be able to serve honorably in the positions that we currently do,” Plummer said.

Goggins, too, said she owes a debt of gratitude to those who have come before her.

“When I came into the Navy almost 31 years ago, there weren’t very many Black nurses in the Navy. I didn’t encounter a Black commander in the Navy Nurse Corps until I became an officer in 1999,” Goggins said. “We’ve come a long way, but we still have a ways to go.”

Since then, she has looked to people of color who have taken opportunities and advanced as inspiration. In her current position, she said, she has made it a point to ensure that all qualified individuals have those opportunities, regardless of race.

“I want everyone to have the same opportunities I was afforded, and I try to make myself available for that,” Goggins said.

Plummer said that his advice for young African Americans thinking about a career, enlisted or officer, in military medicine is that there are always doors open to opportunity. He said that it’s just a matter of finding them and walking through them.

“I have been serving for 32 years without break in service,” Plummer said, but he had no idea he would be in the position that he’s in now over three decades ago.

Plummer enlisted in the Army after graduating college in his native Jamaica in 1989 and said he initially had no plans to serve longer than four years.

“I had no inclination to make the military a career. I simply thought it was something to help my family, enjoy the benefits of the GI Bill and leave after four years,” Plummer said.

“I was encouraged by an Army nurse to ‘humor her’ and go to the Army’s LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse) school. She thought, then, that I might have made a good nurse and wanted to keep me in the military.

“I graduated as the distinguished honor graduate from LPN school, and that changed everything for me,” Plummer said. “It showed me that I had the ability to be a good nurse.”

Vintage photo of nurse sitting at a desk
Army Maj. Della H. Raney, a graduate of Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing in Durham, North Carolina, was the first Black nurse to be commissioned in the Army Nurse Corps. (Courtesy of National Archives.)

He now looks at himself as an example of someone who came in as a junior enlisted individual, who stayed out of trouble, who listened to guidance and took opportunities that were offered. He noted that people of other backgrounds should be looked at as allies rather than adversaries.

“Most of my mentors were actually White professionals,” Plummer said. “These are people who helped to guide me. My job was to be ready when they opened a door of opportunity. Ensure that you are ready so that you can walk through that door and perform.”

“I share my story because sometimes people may not see the future,” Plummer said. “Someone saw my future and I’m still serving 32 years later. I’m an O-6 and I’m contributing to the future of the Military Health System.”

Goggins agreed.

“We can learn from anyone, regardless of what their race or background is,” she said. “People look to people who look like them or have similar experiences to theirs, so it’s still important for us to be represented in the military and, specifically, in the medical field as we move forward. That being said, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you confine yourself only to people who look like you. We can all learn from each other.

“Bloom where you’re planted,” Goggins said. “Seek out good mentors, find opportunities to grow and to thrive in the environment that you are in.”

While there has been definite progress regarding race and equality in the time Plummer and Goggins have served, there is still work to be done.

“We’re ahead of the general populace in terms of our representation in military medicine,” Plummer said. “But we’re still not where we need to be based on some of the conversations I’ve been part of regarding the ‘social awakening’ our society has experienced over the last few years.”

Goggins concluded: “We have made contributions, but we still have a long way to go, and I’m looking forward to what is to come.”

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