2 UAMS Nursing Alumni Recount Careers as Navy Nurses

By Spencer Watson

Neither a clinical enterprise nor an official entity of the U.S. Navy, the association is an organization for current, former and active duty navy nurses. Its primary goal is to preserve the rich history and gather memorabilia of the Navy Nurse Corps for future generations to understand the historical impact this group had on nursing and the Navy.

“This is done by collecting oral histories, which are posted on our website and help promote our shared experiences and camaraderie, and we assist other nurses” by, for example, offering nursing scholarships, said JoAnn Hennessy Smith, a retired commander. “It is not a patient care or clinical kind of organization. It is strictly for our enjoyment.”

Smith and fellow group member Ellen Hodges were excited to host the meeting in Little Rock, they said, because it’s usually held on either the East or West Coast – “We usually meet where the ships are!” Smith said.

Breaking from the meetings, Smith and Hodges had the opportunity to share their own stories, and both credited UAMS for preparing them for the careers they had.

Smith was the first Navy Nurse Corps candidate selected in Arkansas, having her final year of undergraduate studies paid for by a commitment to serve.

“The Navy paid my tuition, books and fees for my senior year at what is now the UAMS College of Nursing. I graduated in 1963, was commissioned an ensign in the Navy, and began my two-year service commitment. I spent 26 years there and made it a career.”

That career took her from being a clinical nurse at a naval station on Long Island, N.Y., to treating routine injuries and illness at the base hospital in Subic Bay, Philippines, in the early years before Vietnam; to teaching hospital corpsmen in San Diego, to working as a Navy nurse recruiter out of Houston, Texas, during the height of Vietnam.

She would go on to earn a master’s in nursing administration, again utilizing Navy benefits, and serve in higher level positions at hospitals throughout her career.

“I retired in 1989 and taught nursing at Harding University in Searcy for five years and then taught at UAMS for 15 years. The reason I came back here is that I grew up in Little Rock. Little Rock is my hometown.”

Hodges, a native of Wynne, graduated with a nursing diploma from the Methodist Hospital School of Nursing in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1971. She worked as a registered nurse for two years at the Cross County Hospital in her hometown before joining the Navy in 1974. After 12 years of active service and attending night college, she was fortunate to be selected by the Navy to return to college full time in her home state. While at UAMS College of Nursing, Hodges was able to complete all requirements for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing. She graduated in 1988 and was immediately assigned to Naval Hospital Pensacola in Florida as the supervisor for outpatient clinics.

After being transferred to Naval Hospital Beaufort in South Carolina in 1991, then-Lt. Cmdr. Hodges was immediately deployed with the Fleet Marine Force to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“The Navy provides all medical personnel — doctors, nurses, corpsmen — to the Marine Corps. I was the nursing supervisor for patient care to roughly 6,000 Haitians who fled their country due to a military coup. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to learn firsthand all the planning, movement of equipment, supplies, personnel, etc. required for a deployment. I lived in a tent with 10 other people for four months.”

Contrasting nursing in the military to the civilian sector, both said a major difference was the abilities of the navy hospital corpsmen, personnel trained to take on the most basic and essential elements of patient care. As a result, said Hodges, “we do a lot more teaching and training of these young hospital corpsmen. They are like brand new nurses out of college after they’ve passed their boards. You’re showing them the manual skills and explaining the theory behind why you insert a catheter or IV needle a specific way, for instance to maintain sterility and prevent infections.

“When you’re talking about hospital corpsmen, you’re talking about folks who have just graduated high school and go right into the military. They don’t have a lot of experience to speak of.”

Smith said the corpsmen allowed her to really shine in her own profession.

“My level of satisfaction in the Navy was because in all these assignments, I could function as a professional nurse, because the hospital corpsmen were providing care under my supervision,” she said. “I could do the evaluation of the patient, the assessment and the higher level of care, knowing and seeing that the basic care was being given. During my time in the service, corpsmen really functioned at the level of a licensed practical nurse (LPN) because they were educated and trained to do what an LPN can do under supervision.”

Another difference, said Hodges, is a closer bond between coworkers. She said during her 15 years working in obstetrics at a civilian hospital after the Navy, coworkers would go home after their shift to their families. “In the service, however, you may be assigned thousands of miles away from your family. Your fellow Navy nurses become your brothers and sisters — your family; and you are constantly doing things together, especially after working hours.”

“There’s a real connection. You’ve got something in common. Not only are we professional nurses, we’re also military officers. I think the two of those combined makes for a unique relationship, and an almost instant bond whenever you see another nurse in uniform.”