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Being a somewhat timid soul, I was surprised when some of my nursing colleagues, members of the Navy Nurse Corps, suggested that I join them. This came in a period between being a Maryknoll Sister (foreign missionary work, which I had to leave for family need) and joining my present group, the Sisters for Christian Community. I was over the age limit so I had to seek an age waiver, and I had never considered military service. I had, however, gained a great deal of respect for my military nurse colleagues through professional activities with the Navy Nurse Corps in Washington, D.C.

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As I began to explore the history of the Navy Nurse Corps, I was immediately captivated by the spirituality of both early and contemporary nurses. I told my Navy Nurse Corps friends that any military nursing group that had labeled their first twenty nurses "The Sacred Twenty"1 must be a caring, spiritual community. I was deeply moved to learn the names of the various hospital ships that had been commissioned in the service of those wounded in conflict. Today our two military hospital ships are the USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy. The names Mercy and Comfort had been used for hospital ships in the past, as well as the titles USS Relief Solace, Hope, Bountiful, Samaritan, Refuge, Haven, Benevolence, Tranquility and Consolation. Additionally, the USS Repose and the USS Sanctuary were deployed during the Vietnam era. I met several Navy nurses who ministered to the ill and injured on the latter two hospital ships during that conflict. Their stories of caring and commitment touched my spirit.


When I mentioned the possibility of putting on the Navy uniform to some non-military colleagues and friends, they responded with surprise, if not outright shock. As one friend said, "I can't imagine you wanting to be involved in war; you don't like any kind of conflict." That's true. I don't even like to disagree with anyone. I'm timid unless a situation demands that I be otherwise.


Why did I, a Christian nurse, choose to put on the uniform of the Navy Nurse Corps? Three things influenced me. First, the words of the oath taken by all military personnel, which I knew I would be asked to pledge; second, the philosophy of the "just war" theory, described so many centuries ago by one of my favorite saints, Augustine of Hippo; and finally, and most importantly, a powerfully challenging passage from the Gospel of John.


The oath that I would take when I put on the uniform stated: I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.


Reading the oath for the first time, I was struck by the fact that no words contained in the formula sounded warlike, combative, hostile or aggressive. On the contrary, I considered it a spiritual commitment to support, to defend and to bear true faith and allegiance to my country; to serve in concert with the mandates of the Commander-in-Chief and superior officers in the nurse corps and the guidelines of military justice. Furthermore, the fact that I took this oath of fidelity to military nursing by publicly invoking the name, and thus the blessing and support, of God also bore witness to the spiritual nature of the commitment.


Augustine, whose "just war" theory has been examined, cited and debated for centuries, held that the only reasons a Christian could justify war were the desire for peace and for the protection of all members of the human family. The quotation, which I found at the time of my military service, and which may be paraphrased from Augustine, was: "War, or the conquest of a people, is always a very sad necessity in the eyes of men of principle; however, much more unfortunate would it be were we to allow wrongdoers to dominate the lives of just men." I trusted that my country would never seek to engage in war for reasons other than those which Augustine could support.


And, in the end, the decision to put on the uniform was for me most powerfully and profoundly influenced by the teaching of Jesus, the source of my strength and the center of my life. His words in John 15:12-13 gripped me: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." This act of "greatest love" is the final "order" which each member of a military service must be willing to obey, if called upon by the Lord to do so.


After joining the Navy, I served for eight years in the Navy Nurse Corps Reserve. I worked primarily in nursing research at a large naval medical center. During that time, I was continually impressed by the absolute dedication, caring and commitment of my active duty colleagues in the Corps; their sense of duty, honor and service was an inspiration to witness and a grace to behold. The best way I can share what I learned about the spirituality of navy nurses, and why I, a Christian nurse, felt blessed and gifted to be allowed to wear the blue and gold, is to relate a story of Navy nursing told to me by a young Lieutenant Commander.


"I had this experience when I was a brand-new ensign in the Navy; it was during Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf. I was charge nurse in the ICU in a small field hospital about twenty miles from the Kuwait border. One day they brought in a young soldier; he was twenty-four and he was a United Arab Emirates soldier. He had stepped on a land mine, and both his legs were blown off, and he had neuro damage. He was taken to surgery, but there was nothing they could do. They brought him to us to die."


"He was not of our faith, not of our culture, not of our military; he was an Arab soldier, but he was on our side. Some corpsmen in the ICU and I didn't want him to die alone. We went through his things to learn his name, and we looked at a picture of his. I remember looking at his family picture and thinking: This is who this soldier is; these are the people who are important to him. Reverence was present there, a respect for who the soldier was, and for his life. Looking at him and respecting him as a person made by God brought reverence for his life."2


Each time I tell that story, related by a Navy Nurse Corps officer, I am grateful for the opportunity of putting on the Navy uniform. The ministry of military nursing is indeed a blessed one, especially for a Christian nurse.


1 D. M. Sterner, In and Out of Harm's Way: A History of the Navy Nurse Corps (Seattle, Wash.: Peanut Butter Publishing, 1996), 25. [Context Link]


2 Mary Elizabeth O'Brien, The Nurse's Calling: A Christian Spirituality of Caring for the Sick (Mahwah, N.J.; Paulist Press, 2001), 105-06. (Reprinted with permission of Paulist Press.) [Context Link]