At Fort Irwin, in California’s Mojave Desert, the Dr. Mary E. Walker Center is an administrative building that is part of the Weed Army Community Hospital system.
The hospital system serves a military and civilian population of nearly 10,000. One day each December, hundreds of soldiers from Fort Irwin’s 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment march up the hill from the train depot in Barstow to visit with veterans living at CalVet’s Veterans Home of California-Barstow. They chat with the veterans, listening to their stories of service.
Here’s a story that might interest them as well: The story of Dr. Mary E. Walker, whose name graces a building back at their base. With March being Women’s History Month, it’s the perfect time to detail what Walker accomplished in her remarkable life, and how she became the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, which is why the center is named in her honor.
Mary Edwards Walker was born in upstate New York in 1832, to abolitionist parents who encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming a surgeon. After graduating from medical school in Syracuse in 1855, she had a private practice. When the Civil War began, she tried to become a surgeon in the Army, but was rejected because the Army commissioned women nurses, not physicians. She refused to join as a nurse and instead volunteered as a surgeon at a hospital set up inside the U.S. Patent Office.
By 1862, she was working in field hospitals as a surgeon under contract to the Union. A year later, her medical credentials were accepted, and she went to Tennessee as a War Department surgeon, with a salary equivalent to an Army lieutenant or captain.
Walker was captured in April 1864 by the Confederates, and returned several months later during a prisoner of war exchange. She resumed her work as a surgeon for the Union which continued until the war’s end.
In 1866, President Andrew Johnson, by executive order, bestowed upon her the Medal of Honor. Her citation read, in part, that she “devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health. She has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war for four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon.”
Walker spent most of her post-Civil War life fighting for women’s rights. Eccentric and scrappy, she wore men’s clothing. According to Connectingvets.com, she was repeatedly arrested for impersonating a man, but argued that the government granted her special permission to dress as she did.
In 1917, Congress reviewed the medals presented to civilians, and revoked 912 of them, Walker’s included. Feisty as ever, Walker refused to return the medal and wore it until her death in 1919.
In 1977, after an active and convincing campaign by her family, President Carter restored her Medal of Honor. It is now on display at the Pentagon, and her story is told at the Women in Military Service to America Memorial at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
And, of course, her name is on the medical center building at Fort Irwin, which is a fitting tribute to a very special surgeon and woman.
Sources: U.S. Department of Defense; U.S. Army; U.S. Army Medical Department; ConnectingVets.com