United States Army Nurse Corps (Retired)
“The Army nurse is the symbol to the soldier of help and relief in his hour of direst need. Through mud and mire, through the mark of campaign and battle, wherever the fight leads, she patiently – gallantly – seeks the wounded and distressed. Her comfort knows no parallel. In the heart of all fighting men, she is enshrined forever.
General Douglas MacArthur, Dec 1944
Her three daughters’ boast was “mother wears combat boots.” She chuckles when she tells that story and is unabashedly modest about her “Horatio Alger” type career in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. Horatio Alger captured the essence, emotion, soul and spirit of America. His message was always the same; no matter who you were, poor, orphaned or powerless, if you would persevere, do your best and try to do the right thing, you would succeed.
Frances was 36 years old and recently divorced with three daughters aged one, four and five years. She was at a crossroads in her life journey and it was time to start thinking about a career. Not just a job; she had held plenty of those. She wanted a real career. Little did she realize that a chance encounter with an Army recruiter was to change her life and provide a most meaningful and rewarding Army Nurse Corps career spanning the next 23 1/2 years.
The Army Nurse Corps became a part of the Army Medical Department in 1901. About 21,460 Army nurses (10,000 overseas) served in World War I with 270 nurses losing their lives in the conflict. World War II saw the Nurse Corps grow from fewer than 7,000 at the beginning of the war to more than 57,000 by war’s end. Some 215 brave nurses died for their country during that war. Approximately 540 Army nurses served in Korea and nearly 5,000 in Vietnam where eight women made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. Operation Desert Storm included 2,200 nurses serving in forty-four hospitals. Two of every three nurses in the Arabian Gulf were from the Army National Guard or Army Reserves.
Frances was born in Darby, Pennsylvania on April 8, 1941. She was three years old when her mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. She was raised by relatives and attended St. John Baptist High School near Philadelphia and studied nursing at Fitzgerald Mercy Hospital. She was married in 1964 and the newlyweds headed for California to avail themselves of California’s then excellent higher education system. Both worked to pay the bills while going to school (Frances worked at both a full-time and a part-time job while carrying a full academic load). Frances and her husband received degrees from Cal State Long Beach in 1968. She had her first child that same year and after graduating in June they all piled into a Volkswagen Beatle and headed back east.
In 1978 she started teaching practical nursing in the Chester-Upland School District adjacent to Springfield, Pennsylvania. She had supplemented her education degree with a Bachelor of Science in nursing from Wilmington College. She quickly became program director. In her attempt to avail her students of nursing career opportunities, she invited an Army recruiter to make his pitch to her classes. Not one student expressed an interest in Army nursing. However, within a month the recruiter had convinced her to submit her application for the Army Reserve Nurse Corps.
Frances was perhaps not the ideal candidate. She was 36 years old and a single parent. She had a full-time job and a part-time job working in a hospital emergency room on weekends. She didn’t have time to attend basic training. Her application was rejected. Her application had been submitted through the 361st Folsum, Pennsylvania Evacuation Hospital (a portable hospital including an inflatable “blow up” structure). The unit’s commanding officer, Colonel Brown, who Frances describes as alternating between being a terrific mentor and a witch, would not be denied.
Her application was resubmitted and accepted. It was very good news. The better news was that Frances would enter the Army Reserve as a 1st Lieutenant (skipping the 2nd Lieutenant rank) and the best news was that she would not be required to attend basic training. There would be no marching, saluting or Army organization and command structure training. These were skills that she didn’t realize she would later need. It was one weekend of drill a month, one night a month of administration and two weeks of active duty in the summers and a very useful paycheck.
Colonel Brown, the mentor, was wise in the ways of the Army and knew what had to be done to advance within the Army. Frances was off to San Antonio, Texas and the Army’s Advanced Officer Training School for the first of her two summer active duty sessions at the school. Attendees at the school included both active and reserve officers from almost every Army specialty. She got the “big picture” of the Army Nurse Corps; she “didn’t know what she didn’t know” but that began to change. She began to understand the “move up or move out” military command structure. She was now a captain and graduated from the school in 1980.
What came next was to become the fulcrum of her Army career. The Army Nurse Corps ran a nursing training center (2076th USARF School) in Wilmington, Delaware. Colonel Brown’s unit had been sending soldiers there for some time but there was a serious problem with attrition. The school had a staff opening for an instructor and Colonel Brown sent Francis. “It’s a good move…you need to go” was all the encouragement Frances needed.
What followed was a major revamping of the school followed by a period of rapid expansion. The school was a major training center for 91C’s (practical nurses) in the Army Reserve. In cooperation with the Delaware State Board of Nursing, which proved to be very far-sighted, changes were made that allowed students to take the state board exams after a two-year period of study instead of the normal one year period. Allowing Army Reserve students an extra year to complete their studies radically lowered the attrition rate. School enrollment passed the 1,000 mark. The Air Force and Navy both got on board. Many of the Army Reserve students were career policemen and firemen in civilian life and were looking beyond their current situation to post-retirement careers in nursing.
The school’s summer training sessions were held at the University of Delaware campus at Newark, Delaware. There were soldiers marching to and fro everywhere, enough to unnerve some local residents. Local hospitals were filled with nurses in Army field uniforms getting their hands-on training. To reduce the training costs and improve accessibility to the school, satellite programs were set up in several states including Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts and New York. Now a major, Frances became the satellite director and eventually the director of instruction.
Frances needed to further her own education and preparation for command and she enrolled in the Army General Command and Staff College conducted at Wellesley College outside of Dover, Delaware. She completed the course in 1991 and met Tom Carney who would later become her husband. She became the Assistant Director of the 2076th USARF School and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. The school was placed under the command of the 80th Division headquartered in Richmond, Virginia. She became the S3 (head of planning and training) of the 5th Health Service Brigade and spent much of her time traveling to and from headquarters in Richmond. She was now at the Brigade level and had very significant management responsibility. She began to think seriously about her Army career and the possibility of eventual retirement. Up to this point Frances has been serving under the presumption that she would never retire from the military. Her thinking was well founded. The Army required her signature on a document when she joined. That document specified that she would not be able to retire from the military due largely to the fact that she was 36 when she joined. She had been given formal notice.
The civilian side of her life and career were moving along. She and Tom Carney were married. She decided to leave teaching and go back into a hospital setting and develop a specialty in diabetes. She completed her Case Management Certification as a Clinical Diabetes Specialist at Villanova University in 1990 and took a job at Brandywine Hospital setting up an outpatient diabetes program.
Operation Desert Storm was brewing in the Middle East. She was called to active duty and given 15 days to report to Fort Dix, New Jersey. Her husband was having health problems associated with earlier coronary by-pass surgery. She arranged for his care and placed her youngest daughter in boarding school. She reported to Fort Dix and was immediately sent to San Antonio to ramp-up the Army’s nursing education program. The need shifted from Practical Nurse to Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). Fortunately, the war ended quickly and after three months in San Antonio she was sent back to Fort Dix and released after four months there.
Frances returned to Brandywine Hospital where she spent the next six years running the diabetic outpatient program. She was selected to attend the War College in Carlisle, PA. It was a prestigious assignment and things looked good. Then in 1995 her husband Tom passed away. She also moved from S3 to Assistant Commandant of the 5th Health Service Brigade.
It was decision time. The good news was that the Army had to make a commitment to Frances when she was called to active duty to allow her to complete 20 years of service and retire from the Army under certain conditions. She had been a lieutenant colonel for six years and the “up or out” policy was very much on her mind. She applied for the rank of colonel knowing that she
had two chances at promotion. If she was not selected (passed over) she could reapply in one year. If she was passed over a second time, she would be out of the Army and any dreams of retirement would be permanently gone. She was almost 60. She had to wait nine months for the answer.
She was promoted to Colonel! Frances became the brigade commandant but found she must eventually relocate to Richmond, Virginia. It was September of 2001. The hospital where she had been working was sold. The attacks on the World Trade Center prompted her recall to 30 days of active duty. She had more career choices to make. She could either be assigned to a major command position on the West Coast or retire. On top of this, she was diagnosed with leukemia.
Knowing that her medical condition could end her Army career, Frances resigned from her position at Brandywine Hospital and retired from the Army with 23 ½ years of service. She married Bob Gilsdorf and relocated to Ocean Pines. It was time to smell the roses and begin chemotherapy treatments.
“The Army was a wonderful part of my life. The opportunity to meet people and develop lasting relationships was great.” Her daughters echo that sentiment and say of their mother’s Army career “We would not have changed a thing.” Frances wants to be thought of only in terms of “the positive impact that she had on the lives of her soldiers and her fellow officers.” She now mentors young Army nurses including one young woman who has four children under 12 and is about to go to Iraq.
To any young graduate she offers the following advice; “Put military service on the table and make it part of your plan. Use it for education, training, friendships and great long-term benefits. Don’t worry about how you might look in combat boots.”
Agnes Francis Carney Gilsdorf holds the Meritorious Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal with Two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Army Achievement Medal, the Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Armed Forces Reserve Medal and the Army Service Ribbon.
~ GEORGE REISWIG