Women’s History Month traditionally highlights the groundbreakers, the glass-ceiling crashers, and the ones who went first.
Count two U.S. Army nurses among them. On March 13, 1942, Major Julia O. Flikke, chief of the Army Nurses Corps, became the first female colonel in the history of the Army. Her second in command, Captain Florence A. Blanchfield, became the Army’s first lieutenant colonel.
Flikke joined the Army Nurse Corps in March 1918, as World War I raged, serving at the Army Hospital in Lakewood, New Jersey. She went to France four months later as chief nurse of a unit in Base Hospital No. 11. When the war ended, she served on a hospital train before returning to the states, where she became a first lieutenant while based in Hot Springs, Arkansas. She continued in the Nurses Corps, working in the Philippines and China, San Francisco, and then to Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C., where she spent 12 years.
She became a captain in 1927, and a decade later began to work in the Surgeon General’s office and train under retiring Major Julia Stimson to run the Nursing Corps as a superintendent. World War II increased the need to recruit nurses in record numbers, and Flikke made that her mission. She wrote “Nurses in Action,’ which became one of the most valuable tools to attract nurses.
In 1942, Public Law 828 allowed nurses to receive commissions ranging from second lieutenant to colonel. Nurses also began receiving pay commensurate with officers of equal grade (without dependents).
The commissions Flikke and Blanchfield received were only temporary, per military protocol. Flikke retired due to a physical disability in June 1943 at age 65. Blanchfield replaced her atop the Army Nurses Corps and after Congress passed the Army-Navy Nurses Act of 1947 she worked so hard to create – Blanchfield became the first permanent woman officer in the military.
CalVet Connect featured Blanchfield in a July 2020 post.
Today, more than 40,000 women currently serve as officers in the United States military. Last week, Air Force General Jacqueline Van Ovost – the only active-duty woman to currently hold the rank of four-star general – and three-star Army General Laura Richardson were nominated to become the second and third women ever to lead U.S. military commands.
The first, Air Force General Lori Robinson, retired in 2018.