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NEWS | May 11, 2009

Air Force nursing: 60 years, still counting

By Col. Consuella Pockett 437th Medical Group commander

The upcoming 60th anniversary of the Air Force Medical Service and the Air Force Nurse Corps reminds me that I have been a part of this elite group of Airmen for just over a third of its existence.

Although the youngest of the military's medical services, the AFMS has a proud heritage.

The service's history began June 8, 1949, when the Department of the Air Force General Order No. 35 established the AFMS. Less than a month later, July 1, 1949, the Air Force Nurse Corps was established as an integral part of the AFMS when 1,199 nurses transferred from the Army to the Air Force. By Oct. 1, 1949, air evacuation was predicted to become more important than ever for the wartime evacuation of the sick and wounded.

The first objective of the Air Force Nurse Corps was procurement of enough qualified professional nurses. By Jan. 1, 1950, the Air Force Nurse Corps consisted of 90 administrative, 70 operating room, 30 anesthesia, 14 neuropsychiatric and 925 general duty nurses; 79 of whom served as flight nurses in aerovac units. In the midst of a nationwide nursing shortage, April 27, 1950, the Air Force initiated active recruitment programs, encouraging many brave Americans to answer the call to service.

Air Force nurses have served in every major conflict since the inception of the Air Force Nurse Corps. At the onset of the Korean War, there were 1,170 Air Force nurses serving on active duty. By the peak of the war 2,991 Air Force nurses served on active duty. Air Force nurses set a record Dec. 5, 1950, when they helped evacuate 4,000 wounded Army and Marine Corps patients in a single day. In addition, Air Force nurses helped fly more than 900 sick and starving Korean orphans from Kimpo to safety on Cheju-do during Operation Christmas Kidlift.

In 1955, the Air Force Nurse Corps began accepting men, and today, males comprise approximately 30 percent of the Air Force Nurse Corps.

Of the approximately 7,500 American women who served during the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1972, more than 4,000 were Air Force nurses. Air Force flight nurses evacuated 711 patients, a record high, out of Vietnam on 12 separate missions March 7, 1969. From February to April 1973, flight nurses flew on several Operation Homecoming missions, repatriating 591 American prisoners of war from North Vietnam, South Vietnam, China and Laos. In the spring of 1975, flight nurses assigned to Clark Air Base, Luzon Island, Philippines, evacuated 2,000 South Vietnamese orphans during Operation Babylift.

The Air Force deployed 15 air-transportable hospitals with a 750-bed capacity and one 1,250-bed contingency hospital to the theater in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in August 1990. Four Air Force contingency hospitals in Europe with 3,250 beds and 20 casualty reception hospitals in the United States with 12,178 beds were also readied to save lives. In addition, more than 5,200 medical personnel deployed to the theater and to Europe in support of these efforts. Patient visits in the theater amounted to almost 48,000 during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Between March and May 2003, major combat in the invasion of Iraq occurred, resulting in nearly 2,000 aeromedical evacuations, including 640 battle casualties. Combat operations have continued until the present day, resulting in significant deployments for the AFMS expeditionary medical support units and around-the-clock work for the aeromedical evacuation system and other Air Force medics. At the peak of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 3,300 Airmen from the AFMS supported the 75,000 deployed Airmen.

The AFMS has been globally engaged for the past 19 years in response to war, natural disasters and humanitarian calls. In 2008, 563 Air Force nurses were deployed around the world and accounted for one third of all AFMS deployed Airmen. These clinical, critical care and operating room nurses, along with certified registered nurse anesthetists, supported two theater hospitals, six expeditionary medical support facilities, four first responder care teams, two contingency aero-medical staging facilities, 10 aero-medical evacuation crews and seven critical care air transport teams.

Joint medical advancements have led to both the lowest casualties due to wounds and the lowest disease non-battle injury rates in history. Air Force nurses play a major role in aero-medical evacuation missions moving our wounded warriors from the front lines of Afghanistan and Iraq to home soil in under three days with a 98 percent survival rate.

Since its inception 60 years ago, the Air Force Nurse Corps has provided leadership and caring, quality care in both war and peacetime. Today, there are 3,056 nurses serving in the Air Force Nurse Corps, including 14 assigned to the 437th Medical Group. Their dedication to the ideals of this prestigious profession's past 60 years will, no doubt, carry on into a celebrated future. I am honored to have the privilege of contributing to the proud heritage of Air Force nursing, but the mission of the Air Force Nurse Corps really says it all - we lead, we partner, we care, every time, everywhere.