Cadet nurses inch closer to getting veteran status

With the U.S. House passage of the National Defense Authorization Act last week, the country moved one step closer to recognizing cadet nurses as veterans.

About 180,000 women joined the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps to address the nursing shortage during World War II. About 124,000 of them became licensed through the five-year program, which offered a federally funded education to would-be nurses who promised to serve throughout the war.

Thomas Saadi, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs, said the nurses helped the nation's hospitals stay open and cared for wounded service members when they arrived back home.

"Even a step (toward) recognition is a huge step for these individuals who quite literally, although on U.S. soil, served the country in a way that helped us win the war," Saadi said.

An amendment to the $733 billion authorization act, which passed the House by a vote of 220-197 July 12, would create honorary veteran status for honorably discharged cadet nurses, most of whom are now in their late 80s or early 90s.

The amendment allows cadet nurses to receive service medals from the Secretary of Defense and burial benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, although not in Arlington National Cemetery. It extends no other benefits.

Saadi said he supports this “long overdue recognition.”

“It’s an issue that’s below the radar for many, but for those who are affected, it would have an incredible impact,” Saadi said.

He likened the nurses' fight for recognition to the one waged by members of the U.S. Merchant Marines who served during World War II. The mariners, who transport people and materials for the military during wartime, didn’t get veteran status until 1988, when a federal court ordered it.

“They for decades were not recognized, even though they were on ships that were attacked by Japanese and German forces,” Saadi said. “Many of them died, but because they were unarmed, people didn’t consider them veterans.”

“Sometimes it takes a while for people to understand that in such a total war effort, many elements of the country have to come together,” he said. “It was years of education.”

Saadi said people also forget that only a limited number of women were allowed to join the military during World War II, even in nursing and secretarial roles.

“For many, the desire probably was to join, but they were unable to,” he said. “Instead, they were able to contribute through the cadet corps.”

Elsie Szecsy, president and CEO of uscadetnurse.org, said many of the women stayed in nursing and became pioneers in fields including outpatient surgery, emergency nursing and geriatric nursing — fields "we take for granted as having always been there."

Saadi said his agency is ready to open the State Veterans Cemetery in Middletown to cadet nurses as soon as the amended act is signed into law, assuming that’s what happens.

In the coming weeks, the House and Senate will consolidate their separate versions of the authorization act. The cadet nurse provision could be among the cuts.

Saadi said he'd rather see legislators go a step further and offer full benefits to cadet nurses.

“For the small number (of cadet nurses) still alive, granting them veterans benefits is a small fiscal impact,” he said.

Although an estimate of living cadet nurses isn't readily available, federal statistics show 496,777, or 3 percent, of the 16 million Americans who served during World War II were alive in 2018.

The extrapolation is imperfect because men and women have different longevities, but 3 percent of 124,000 cadet nurses is 3,850.

Leslie Harris, president of the Connecticut Nurses’ Foundation, said the foundation knew of nine cadet nurses living in Connecticut when it hosted a 75th anniversary celebration of the Cadet Nurse Corps in November 2018.

The foundation, which is the philanthropic arm of the Connecticut Nurses Association, has been working on the issue since Waterford resident Eileen Degaetano brought it to their attention a few years ago. Degaetano’s mother — 92-year-old Emily Schacht of Waterford — was a cadet nurse.

Other local cadet nurses include Kathleen Kingsley, 92, of Norwich, and Elizabeth Yeznach, 93, of Gales Ferry.

Harris said sharing the stories of known cadet nurses sometimes brings others forward. It also helps preserve their contributions to the country, she said.

“They just want recognition that they served and did so with dignity and pride,” she said. “That’s all they’re asking for — but even with that, it’s been an uphill battle.

“This is such a no-brainer.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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