Ledyard WWII Cadet Nurse Corps member doubtful group will receive veterans status

Ledyard — In her wallet, Elizabeth Yeznach, 89, has a picture of herself from more than 70 years ago.

Yeznach is 17 years old in the picture, fresh-faced and smiling. She's sporting a gray jacket with red epaulets and a matching gray hat — with a silver pin depicting the insignia of the U.S. Public Health Service — sits atop her short, curly hair.

From 1943 until 1946, Yeznach was a member of the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, a federal government program set up during World War II to address the nursing shortage on the home front.

The women who served in the civilian group are not recognized as veterans by the federal government.

"At this point, I can't say that I've given up, but at the same time, I can't say that I really expect that anything is going to change," Yeznach said.

The cadet nurses who are still alive are now in their late 80s or older.

"As far as I'm concerned, I don't know how many are left," Yeznach said in a recent interview at her home.

State Sen. Cathy Osten recently presented Yeznach with a proclamation from the Connecticut General Assembly recognizing her service.

During the 2016 legislative session Osten plans to reintroduce a resolution that would recommend to the federal government that cadet nurses be recognized as veterans.

The resolution itself would not change their status.

"It's more than symbolic. It's a respect issue," Osten said by phone recently. "It's a rights issue."

Yeznach and others, Osten said, could be eligible for local property tax exemptions, for example.

In 1943, Congresswoman Frances P. Bolton, a Republican from Ohio, introduced a bill to establish a government program to provide grants to nursing schools to train more nurses to serve in military and civilian hospitals, health agencies and war-related industries.

The bill was passed unanimously and became law on July 1, 1943. The corps was formed, and the U.S. Public Health Service became its supervisor.

More than 180,000 women between the ages of 17 and 35, and who met the educational and physical requirements, enlisted to become cadet nurses.

Yeznach attended St. Francis Hospital School of Nursing in Hartford from September 1943 until she graduated in September 1946.

By 1945, cadet nurses were providing 80 percent of the nursing care in U.S. hospitals, according to a website dedicated to the group

"We were the backbone of nursing," Yeznach said.

Once they graduated, Yeznach said, cadet nurses didn't even think about asking for recognition. 

"Being women, nice girls, you finished your job and you went home," she said. "You didn't make any waves."

This issue of recognition is not a new one.

Yeznach has been active in trying to get recognition for cadet nurses.

Over the years, she's reached out to her local and federal delegates, and has traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify before the House Armed Services Committee.

In advocating for recognition, Yeznach said, "I'm not trying to make anybody else's service less meaningful."

Since 1995, there have been at least 10 bills introduced in Congress seeking to recognize cadet nurses as veterans.

"It's been a futile attempt," Yeznach said of the congressional bills.

The identical bill has been introduced by U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey, a Democrat representing New York's 17th District.  

During a May 2009 hearing on the "United States Cadet Nurse Corps Equity Act," and two other bills related to veterans, Bradley Mayes, director of compensation and pension service for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the "VA does not question that the Cadet Nurse Corps provided valuable contributions in the nursing field. However, participation in the Corps alone does not meet the criteria specific to active military service and subsequent Veteran status."

In his remarks, Mayes noted that at least twice the secretary of defense "has accepted the unanimous recommendations of a review board that participation in the Cadet Nurse Corps alone is not appropriate for this status." 

Cadet nurses "were neither employees of the Federal Government nor legally obligated to future Government service," Mayes said. "They received Federal scholarships while attending nursing schools that received Federal grants-in-aid, and they were allowed to resign at any time." 

Certain cadet nurses chose to enlist upon graduation, and those who did and served honorably are considered veterans for VA-benefit purposes.

Some civilians who participated in World Wars I and II are eligible for VA benefits. The Women's Air Forces Service Pilots, known as WASPs, a civilian group, was recognized under the GI Bill Improvement Act of 1977.

Yeznach said cadet nurses are recognized at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. And in May, the public health service recognized the 72nd anniversary of the corps with a gala in Bethesda, Md.

There, cadet nurses were honored with lapel pins and certificates of recognition. Those who couldn't make it could have those items sent to them.

j.bergman@theday.com

Twitter: @JuliaSBergman

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