Bea Steffl is reluctant about the interview. "I think you want stories of blood, and battles," says the 84-year-old Tempe resident. "I was never in a battle." Fresh out of school, she left Minnesota in 1944 to treat sailors in the Persian Gulf, then moved up the Italian peninsula in the wake of World War II.
Like many military nurses, Steffl sacrificed much to treat American casualties and serve her country. And like many military nurses, she doesn’t understand what the fuss is about.
"I was in the war," she says, "but I don’t want you thinking I did anything special."
Today, as we honor American soldiers, a public controversy lingers over a woman’s role in battle. But any doubts about women in war overlook the courageous tradition of military nurses, who have followed and ministered to soldiers in every American conflict.
At the Arizona Veterans Home, Betty Puskac, 85, chuckles dryly as she recalls riding a boat across the Pacific Ocean. "Nurses had to be on deck at 6 a.m. to take turns watching for subs," she says. "We didn’t know where we were going or what was to become of us."
Her service included stops in Guam and in Saipan, where 80 nurses worked a 1,000-bed hospital, treating casualties brought by ship.
"The hardest part was the morning," she says. "We’d be notified: ‘Anchor at suchand-such hour.’ You’d shower and look for the ship."
The wounded came in slowly at first, but their numbers soon increased. "It was frightening," she says. "Depressing. Some would have marks on them: ‘Five hours to live.’ One of the worst days was when one of our own planes didn’t make takeoff and blew up on the island. That was just awful. Bodies and pieces everywhere. Halfway through (the rescue), they told us, ‘There’s nothing more to find here. Go to the morgue.’ As nurses, we talked a lot about it among ourselves. But I don’t think anything really prepares you for that kind of death."
World War II nurses often traded the tidy scenarios of training schools for multiple casualties in remote and dangerous places. "But everyone wanted to contribute," says Steffl. "I can’t say enough for the camaraderie of the people."
Steffl’s boat took her across the Atlantic to the 21st Army Station Hospital in Iran. There, they treated the Sikhs and Australian Merchant Marines who shipped supplies into the Persian Gulf for overland transport to Russia. "We had 25 to 30 nurses and were the equivalent of a MASH unit," she says. "We treated accidents at sea: Broken bones, a lot of malaria."
Her unit went to Italy in 1945, and they treated wounded GIs. "They were always glad to see you," says Steffl. "But they kept getting up when they weren’t supposed to. So to keep ’em in bed, we’d steal their pajama pants."
That spring brought 300 German prisoners en route to POW camps. "We expected indignation and hate from them," she says. "But near the end of the war, the Germans were forcing young boys into service. You began to see them as another set of soldiers, wounded and far from home."
BUNKER HILL TO BAGHDAD
Throughout history, women have followed soldiers into battle. First as wives, then as nurses, many put themselves in harm’s way to reach and treat the wounded. As a result, field hospitals evolved into an essential component of modern armies. "I remember Gen. Tommy Franks coming though our hospital before Desert Storm," says retired Col. Christine Mahon. "He wanted to see that his soldiers would be treated well."
Mahon never imagined running a military hospital when she joined the Army. "It was 1972. I was a hungry ASU grad student," says the 57-year-old Ahwatukee Foothills resident. "Someone told me the Reserves were (a way to make) extra money. ‘You’ll just work downtown, teaching guys how to take vital signs.’ "
Her 27-year career included service in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. "It’s the people you serve with who make you stay," she says, chuckling. "I stayed a long time. So, I guess I liked it."
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Mahon and other reservists could see ‘the call’ coming. "It was like being a hospice patient — just a matter of ‘when?’ " Once activated, she left her husband and three children to train at Fort Ord, Calif. "Six weeks learning to work in protective suits. We fully expected chemical weapons attacks."
In the Gulf, she drove Humvees across the desert as her unit assembled the 403rd Combat Support Hospital, ten miles from the Iraqi border. "I drove a tank once," she says. "The crew had pictures of their kids taped up inside of it. I remember hoping we wouldn’t see these guys in the hospital. Tank injuries are the worst.’"
The ground war was, happily, anticlimactic. "We treated lots of Iraqi prisoners," says Mahon. "Most were conscripts who’d been told we’d torture them, so putting IVs or catheters in was a challenge. One burst into tears when I gave him an (Army ration). Here’s the food we’re all sick of, and he’s happy to get it."
Though never fully tested in combat, Mahon says the 403rd Combat Support Hospital was a model of effective medical care. "We assembled a 300-bed hospital, staffed with doctors and nurses seasoned from stateside emergency rooms and ICUs. A soldier (evacuated) there would have a 98 percent chance of survival."
That effectiveness owes much, she says, to the lessons learned from military nurses who preceded her.
"People talk about women at war like this is something new," says Mahon. "We’ve been serving our country well for a long time, and will for a long time to come."