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Binding Wounds, Fighting to Serve: African-Americans in Military Medicine

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Part 1: Early America through the Civil War

Military medicine today reflects both diversity and inclusion now more than ever before in its more than 200-year history.

“Our nation is a tapestry of strength woven with people of all backgrounds and origins. We must take ownership of what we do to cultivate…a workforce that is ready, technically savvy, relevant, and motivated,” Vice Adm. Matthew L. Nathan, U.S. Navy Surgeon General, said about diversity and inclusion.

In June 2013, Army Maj. Gen. Nadja West became the first female African-American two-star general in the Army Medical Command. In September 2007, retired Navy Vice Adm. Adam Robinson, the first African-American physician to serve as commander, National Naval Medical Center, became the first African-American Surgeon General of the Navy and chief, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED). In November of the same year, Navy Master Chief Laura A. Martinez became the first African-American and second woman to serve as Force Master Chief and director of the Hospital Corps.

But before West, before Robinson, before Martinez — Joseph Anderson, a 16-year-old African-American loblolly boy (precursor to hospital corpsmen) served on the schooner USS Eagle in 1800, according to Andre Sobocinski, a BUMED historian.

Former slaves Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Susie King Taylor, and Ann Stokes, nursed soldiers and sailors during the Civil War. The U.S. Army Medical Department Office of Medical History cites as many as 181 black nurses, both female and male, served in convalescent and U.S. government hospitals in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina during the Civil War.

Slaves nursing the military

Learning to read and write as a slave, Taylor proved invaluable to the Union Army when she nursed wounded soldiers and taught those who could not read or write, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). The 1st South Carolina Colored Volunteers hired her as a laundress in 1862. She wrote about her life in the book “Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers” published in 1902.

Fugitive slaves, known as “contraband” worked for the Union Army and Navy as nurses, cooks, laundresses and laborers. The NLM refers to Ann Stokes, taken aboard the USS Red Rover as “contraband” in 1863, hired as a nurse. Stokes is cited as the first African-American woman to serve on board a U.S. military vessel and among the first women to serve as a nurse in the Navy.

African-American Surgeons in War

In 1863, Alexander T. Augusta became the first black surgeon in the U.S. Army, commissioned as a major in the 7th U.S. Colored Troops, according to the African American Registry (AAR). After two white assistant surgeons complained to President Abraham Lincoln, ARR records, the president was forced to transfer Augusta to Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Working as a medical examiner, Augusta received the same pay as a black enlisted man, $7 a month. The surgeon petitioned the assistance of a senator to receive the pay he argued he deserved. In 1865, he received the rank of lieutenant colonel.

These trailblazers were just the first ones to break ground to what finally became full integration of African-Americans, not just in military medicine but in the general military as well.

The next two parts of this series, will look at the rise to prominence of African-Americans in military medicine through the turn of the 20th Century, World Wars I and II, and then their role after full integration into the American military.

This article is part of a series originally appearing in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center newsletter, Journal.


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Protect your heart – stop smoking

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The link between smoking and cancer is well known, but there’s another major killer associated with smoking that often goes unnoticed – heart disease.

“Smoking not only causes cancer. Smoking is also a significant contributor to heart disease, the top cause of death for men and women in the U.S.,” said Paul Fitzpatrick, manager of the Defense Health Agency’s (DHA) “Quit Tobacco” program.

During National Heart Month in February, DHA wants to spread awareness about how smoking and tobacco use contributes to heart disease. DHA is also promoting heart-healthy lifestyles and tobacco cessation through TRICARE, the health plan for service members and their families, and through the Quit Tobacco website.

Approximately 600,000 people die of heart disease each year in the U.S. – about one in every four deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of these, 107,000 men and women die of heart disease related to smoking and smoke-less tobacco products, deaths that are largely preventable. On average, smokers die 13-14 years earlier than non-smokers.

Here’s how smoking causes heart disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA):

  • Reduces the amount of oxygen your heart gets.
  • Raises your blood pressure.
  • Speeds up your heart rate.
  • Makes clots more likely, which can lead to heart attack or stroke.
  • Decreases exercise tolerance.
  • Causes inflammation of blood vessels including those in your heart.

Heart disease has become the number one cause of smoking-related deaths in women. “This finding is important to men, too, because most of us have women in our lives as wives, mothers, daughters and sisters. Everyone wants their loved ones to live longer,” Fitzpatrick said.

Women who smoke and use oral contraceptives are even more vulnerable. Smoking greatly increases their risk of coronary artery disease and stroke, compared to non-smoking women who use oral contraceptives, according to the AHA.

Quitting smoking before the age of 40 reduces the risk of dying from smoking-related disease by about 90 percent, according to CDC research. However, it’s never too late to quit. If you become one of the millions of people who quit tobacco successfully each year, you can feel benefits almost immediately and will be on your way to a longer, healthier life.


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A Huge Victory for Homeless Veterans

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Credit the new secretary of veterans affairs for embracing, in Los Angeles, the once radical-sounding idea that the sick and the troubled need housing first.

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Doolittle Raiders lose another of their own

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Retired Lt. Col. Edward J. Saylor, one of the last surviving members of the Doolittle Raiders, has died. He was 94.

Saylor, flight engineer of crew 15 on the famous Doolittle Tokyo Raid, passed away Wednesday at his home in Enumclaw, Wash., surrounded by his family. He requested a quiet burial with his wife of 69 years, Lorraine.

He was born on March 15, 1920, in Brussett, Mont., and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1939. Saylor volunteered to go on a secret mission which turned out to be the legendary Doolittle Tokyo Raid which took place on April 18, 1942. He served throughout World War II as an enlisted man, both stateside and overseas, then was commissioned in October 1947. He served until he retired as a lieutenant colonel. His decorations include the Congressional Gold Medal which was recently award to the Doolittle Raiders, the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Force Commendation Medal and the Chinese Army, Navy and Air Corps Medal, Class A, 1st Grade.

In the fall of 2013, Saylor and two of the other three last remaining Raiders appeared at a final toast honoring the famous airmen at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Saylor, a member of American Legion Post 110 in Washington, reflected on his role in history at the event.

“I can thank the country because they appreciated what we did,” he said in an interview with The American Legion Magazine. “It even took us awhile to realize what we did at the time. The war was on, so our job was to drop some bombs. … So we did what we had to do.”

The surviving Raiders are Richard E. Cole, Thomas R. Hite and David J. Thatcher.

Saylor is survived by three children and a host of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


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Los Angeles to Build Housing for Veterans

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The Department of Veterans Affairs has agreed to settle a three-year-old lawsuit brought on behalf of homeless veterans by pledging to build permanent and transitional “bridge” housing.

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