VA History: 1923–National Homes Open For Women Veterans

Ninety-three years ago today, on September 14, 1923, the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (VHA’s origins) approved the first hospital spaces for women veterans.

1924_02_17_National Homes accepting disabled women veterans_NYT

Hospitalization and medical care for women who served as Army or Navy nurses during World War I were first authorized as part of Public Law 65-326 on March 3, 1919, just a few months after the Armistice. It was the third time in history that federal veterans benefits had been extended to women nurses who served with U.S. military forces as contractors or employees during wartime. The first federal benefit—pensions–was authorized in 1892 for women nurses who provided support to the U.S. military during the Civil War. In 1897 Congress approved the right to burial in national cemeteries for the same group. Although the 1919 law gave women nurses the right to medical care, no facilities were prepared to accept them.

The Women’s Overseas Service League, founded in 1921, took up the cause to force changes so that women veterans could use the benefits they were entitled to. Only after the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers approved dedicated space for women veterans did the War Department take further action.  The World War Veterans Act of 1924, as well as several smaller acts afterwards, ensured that accommodations were made to house and provide medical care to women veterans.

At the National Homes, a separate building at the Danville Branch (now VA Illiana HCS) in Danville, Illinois, was authorized for women veterans who required general medical treatment. A floor was reserved for them in the tuberculosis hospital at  the Northwestern Branch (now Clement J. Zablocki VAMC) in Milwaukee.  Catherine G. Witter, a 39 year old Army nurse who served at Camp Zachary Taylor during World War I, was one of the earliest women veterans admitted. She entered the Danville (IL) Branch on December 19, 1923 and died of stomach cancer on July 14, 1924. She is buried in the Home’s cemetery, now known as Danville National Cemetery.

By the time that the National Homes became part of the Veterans Administration in 1930, more hospitals had been constructed and opened, so women veterans weren’t limited to just one or two facilities.

Roughly 21,500 women served as nurses during World War I, with about 10,000 of them serving overseas.


Photo: American nurse in Paris, France, during World War I, Library of Congress

Links to learn more:

Women’s Overseas Service League:

Story: VA Historian




New Mexico Author Looking For Photos of KAFB for new Book

Joseph Page, who has authored several books about military installations, is looking for good-quality photos about Kirtland Air Force Base and, especially photos of its families.  If you’d like to submit your photos to add to the book–due out in late 2017–please email Joseph at

In Honor of the Ironing Board Brigade: THE SERVICE WIFE

Submitted by Marcia S Klaas, original author unknown

What is a service wife?? You might say the service wife is a bigamist, sharing her husband with another demanding entity called “DUTY”. When duty calls, she becomes wife number two. Until she accepts her competition, her life can be miserable.

Above all, she is womanly, although there are times she begins to wonder … Like the time when “HER” serviceman answers the call to duty, and she finds herself mowing the lawn. Then she suspects she is part male.

She usually comes in three sizes: Petite, plump, and more pleasingly plump. Amidst constantly changing settings, she finds it difficult to determine what her true size is.

A service wife is international. She may be an Iowa farm girl, a French mademoiselle, a Japanese doll, or an ex-Army nurse, but when discussing her problems with newly found friends, she speaks the same language and from the same general experience. Read the rest of this entry »

Memories of Mom in Post-War Germany

May 6th, 2016 is Military Spouse Appreciation Day–here’s a memory about an incredible military wife–and mom.

By James Kenderdine.

Postcards from when our family was stationed in Germany, 1947-1950. One of my last memories of Germany was when we were getting ready to leave in 1950, stopping on the Autobahn north of Frankfurt and getting out of the car to look south at what was left of the city. Rolling small hills (made of rubble) covered with grass and brush all the way to the center of the city. I could see the ruins of the cathedral in the center of the city from where I stood. When I stood in the same spot again in 1977, all I could see was the city that had been built since 1950, I could not see any part of the cathedral.

Our years in Germany shaped the lives of everyone in our family in ways that, 65 years later, my sister and I are still coming to understand and appreciate. My guess is that any spouse or brat who did not take the Army’s offer of evacuation during the Berlin Airlift feels that same. My mother said she was not leaving, that, in old army terms, “I can stay the winter, no matter how bad it is.” Watching her learn to shoot and MI carbine was fantastic, and to this day, I can still clearly see the image of her carbine, with a 20 round clip in it, round in the chamber, hanging by its sling next to her and dad’s bed. Read the rest of this entry »

VA History – Harry Belle Durant Stark – WWI Nurse –

-1The use of poisonous gasses proliferated during World War I with nearly one-third of the troops being exposed to them. We tend to think of only soldiers being exposed, but some nurses were, too. Harry Belle Durant Stark, an Army nurse, was one of the few known women to have been exposed to mustard gas during World War I.

-2Harry Belle Durant was born in Florida around 1891 and grew up in Alabama. She graduated from the Saint Vincent’s Hospital School of Nursing in Birmingham in 1911. She became a Red Cross nurse, serving first with the Mexican Border Service, before becoming part of the Army Nurses Corps during World War I. She was stationed at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, from August 1916 to March 1917, before being assigned to Base Hospital No. 24 in Pittsburgh. She sailed for overseas war service in Europe on February 16, 1918 and was transferred to Evacuation Hospital No. 6 in France on July 22, 1918, where she served as Assistant Chief Nurse. Evacuation hospitals received patients directly from the front lines. She was exposed to mustard gas while working in the evacuation hospital and later returned to the U.S. in February 1919.

After the war she married Gustave Frederick Stark and started a family, but the effects from being gassed took a toll on her. At this time we know very little about her exposure, but everyone developed symptoms of some kind. In 1926 she was admitted to the Veterans Bureau hospital known as Castle Point in New York. After 1930 the Veterans Bureau became the Veterans Administration.

The prognosis for gassed soldiers and nurses was often grim, but varied, and was dependent on where on the body they were exposed, for how long, under what circumstances, and many other factors. Mustard gas could blister the eyes and skin, strip the lung’s mucous membrane, cause nausea and vomiting, and much more. Many veterans suffered from lung damage and ended up in tuberculosis hospitals. Some suffered brain damage and were admitted to psychiatric hospitals or committed suicide, and some, like Harry Belle Stark, never recovered the vigor of life. Numerous veterans who were gassed during the war spent years of their lives in veterans hospitals.


Harry Belle Durant Stark spent nearly 12 years of her life in the Castle Point veterans hospital and died on April 17, 1937. At the time, she had been in that hospital longer than anyone else ever had. She was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. We remember her service and sacrifice.

1937_Mrs Harrybelle Stark_gassed WW1 nurse dies_Castle Point_NYT96741824

1920_11_18_70k American gassed in WWI_NYT103496887

Photos: top right – Harrybelle Durant, around 1915,; left  – Harrybelle Durant Stark, around 1918,

From: VA Historian

First Benefits for Women Veterans – Lucy Higgs Nichols

Story: Historian, Veterans Health Administration

Pensions were the first veterans benefits authorized for women in their own right.

Women have been eligible for survivors pensions, as spouses or dependents, since the Colonial period.  Women were present on the battlefield of every American war and provided essential services as nurses, carriers, or various other “unofficial” capacities, yet they did not earn recognition, status, or financial benefits from others, including the government. Women voluntarily spent their own money and went to places that put them in harm’s way with no hope of pay or reimbursement to help the war effort. Only a handful of women were documented to have loaded cannons or bore arms alongside of the men and a rare few were bestowed with any form of compensation for their service.

All that changed after the Civil War.  Hundreds of women, including some former slaves, served as nurses during the American Civil War. They mostly worked as unpaid volunteers or contractors with organizations like the U.S. Sanitary Commission or U.S. Christian Commission, and received no federal benefits for their service. Clara Barton and other Civil War nurses relentlessly sought some form of benefit for the women who left their homes to selflessly aid the men and military forces. Victory was hard-won on August 5, 1892, over 30 years after the Civil War started, when Congress authorized the first pensions for women who served as nurses for the Union forces during the war.


Photo: 1898 photo of Lucy Higgs Nichols with some men of the 23rd Indiana regiment taken at a reunion; courtesy New Albany-Floyd County Public Library.


Although the pensions were authorized, they were not so easy to obtain. Men who served in the military typically received discharge or disability papers with which to prove their service and aid in obtaining benefits. Women nurses had none of those. Many women gave up the search for witnesses who could help vouch for their service and for those who persevered, it often took years. You can imagine the difficulties encountered by former slaves seeking pensions, as most of them could not read or write, but one beloved nurse, Lucy Higgs Nichols, was fortunate: Read the rest of this entry »

Dr. Rosalyn Sussman Yalow – VA’s only woman Nobel Prize recipient  

In 1977 Dr. Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, physicist and researcher at the Bronx VA Medical Center, was awarded a Nobel Prize in medicine. Today, she remains the only woman VA doctor to have had that honor.Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 8.34.16 AM

Rosalyn Yalow became interested in science at the age of 17 when she read a biography of Madame Curie. Like most women, she ran into her share of roadblocks along the way as she pursued her dream of becoming a scientist. She didn’t want merely a career, she wanted to be a wife and mother, too. She was denied opportunities for assistantships in graduate school because of her gender and nepotism, but she never gave up and stayed focused. She once said, “I’m very disciplined. I’ve always put my eye on where I’m going. Trivial things don’t matter to me, and I’m willing to make compromises, except in principle.” Dr. Yalow juggled career, marriage, and children, often working 60-80 per week and peeling potatoes for dinner in late meetings.

In the wake of World War II, VA’s Administrator General Omar Bradley made sweeping changes to modernize the agency. In 1946 he established a Department of Medicine and Surgery, medical school affiliation programs, a robust medical research program, and much more. VA’s Radioisotope Service, later named the Nuclear Medicine Department, was created the following year with the intention of attracting the best and brightest scientists to engage in the exciting new research field. The first nuclear reactor was invented by Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, just a few years earlier in 1942, so it was cutting-edge research and technology at the time. The Bronx VA hospital was selected as a site for nuclear research. Rosalyn Yalow, the second woman to receive a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois, who worked at the Bronx VA as a consultant at the time, was hired for the nuclear research program. In 1950 she was appointed assistant chief of the hospital’s radioisotope service.

She worked with Dr. Solomon “Sol” Berson in the lab since the 1950s and claimed that their discovery of radioimmunoassay was an accident—an off-shoot of another investigation related to adult onset diabetes. Some of their early work in the biology of metabolism showed that animal insulin given to diabetics did, in fact, produce antibodies in humans. They were able to ”tag” insulin in the blood with radioactive iodine–to see and measure it. Their discovery made what was then the immeasurable—the body’s own circulating insulin—measurable: “It was like identifying a teaspoon of sugar in a lake 62 miles long, 62 miles wide, and 30 feet deep.”


Dr. Yalow received the Nobel Prize in 1977, five years after Dr. Berson’s death, for the “development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones.” Dr. Berson, her long-time colleague, died on April 11, 1972, and probably would have been honored alongside Dr. Yalow, but Nobel Prizes are never given posthumously. Radioimmunoassay (RIA) is a highly sensitive technique for measuring tiny amounts of substances in the blood. Hormones are classified under two groups: steroid hormones and peptide hormones. Insulin, prolactin, and oxytocin are examples of peptide hormones. Dr. Yalow and Dr. Berson’s work led to the discovery that Type 2 diabetics have MORE insulin, not less, in their bodies than non-diabetics, which defied conventional scientific thought of the day. Their discovery became useful in diagnosing hypothyroidism and the testing of Hepatitis B virus.


Dr. Yalow was named to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975 and received the Albert Lasker Award in 1976. When she received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1977, she was the second woman to ever receive the prize. She was awarded half of the $145,000 prize; Dr. Andrew Schally, of the VA hospital in New Orleans, and Dr. Roger Guillemin, of the Salk Institute in San Diego, received the other half for their discoveries concerning peptide hormone production of the brain.

Dr. Yalow never retired. She maintained emeritus status at the Bronx VA Medical Center and Mount Sinai Hospitals until her death on May 30, 2011.

Photos: top – Dr. Yalow with Dr. Sol Berson, 1960s; bottom – Dr. Yalow, 2010

Historian, Veterans Health Administration