Prior to WWI, women’s roles in the Armed Forces were limited to helping on the home front. WWI marked the first time in U.S. history that regular nurses in the Army and Navy were allowed overseas, and women were permitted to enlist in the Navy and Marine Corps as civilian volunteers.
Now, women are an integral part of the Armed Forces, standing toe-to-toe on the frontlines and in hospitals with their male counterparts, treating and serving their country as equals. The opportunities available to women in the military medical field have never been more promising, and the flexibility for serving in conjunction with a civilian career — and even while raising a family — makes military medicine the perfect platform for launching a successful career.
The History of Women in the Armed Forces
At one point, the majority of Americans opposed women’s roles in the Armed Forces, but a lot has changed in the past 70 years. In 1942, President Roosevelt signed a bill to create a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WACC), which was a separate entity that trained women for clerical and kitchen work in the military.
Years later, the WACC merged with the Army and granted women more responsibilities, such as photo interpretation, radio operation, and atomic bomb research. In 1967, President Johnson signed a bill lifting career restrictions, and by the ’80s, the Army had more than 15,000 female enlistments.
Opportunities for Women in Military Medicine
Innovation in any field is driven by necessity. The military needed women to step in when the country’s able-bodied men went away to fight. Now, the military needs women to fill crucial positions in the medical field: surgeons, doctors, nurses, or physician’s assistants.
Today, women in military medicine are represented in every specialty, and female military physicians progress in rank, regardless of their particular branch of medicine. Once limited in the ways they could serve, women now have the option of serving overseas in multiple roles. Missions are available in Africa, South and Central America, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific region, and roles include treating veterans, aiding in emergency care situations, and assisting foreign patients.
For women who want to have a family, I’ve found the military to be very supportive. The Army’s Health Professions Scholarship Program allowed me to attend a private medical school without burdening my family with debt when I was newly married. I had my second child while serving on active duty, and I was able to spend six weeks at home with my child after giving birth — an unprecedented amount of time off for anyone working as a civilian physician.
Advantages to Serving in the Military Medical Field
The Armed Forces not only support women who want to balance a career with family, but they also provide a fantastic platform to launch a civilian career. The leadership roles available to female physicians in the military medical field are relatively uncommon in the civilian world of medicine, and this experience can open many doors for physicians later if they want to advance in military rank or continue their careers outside the military.
Physicians with military backgrounds might even have a professional edge on those without service experience, considering military physicians have demonstrated an ability to thrive in undesirable locations, work under great pressure, and treat patients who are victims of serious trauma. Once I was ready to end my active duty career, I found civilian employers were eager to interview me.
Once I entered the medical field as a civilian OB/GYN, I immediately missed the draw of the uniform and Army life. I found joining the Army Reserve Medical Corps a happy compromise for me and my family; it provided extra income and allowed me to expand my leadership and medical skills, and the 90-day foreign tours brought an array of new opportunities.
The time I’ve spent in the military medical field has been very fulfilling, and I have never regretted my choices. Women in the military today have a wide range of options to work in fields they are passionate about, and serving in the Armed Forces can act as a great stepping stone for a civilian career. The opportunities for women in the military are endless, and the choices make military medicine a viable option for women, no matter what their future goals may be.
Jacqueline Thompson, MD, is a civil service OB/GYN at Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, N.C. She began her military career after accepting a scholarship from the Army’s Health Professions Scholarship Program for medical school. Since the end of her active duty career in 1997, she has advanced to the rank of Colonel in the Army Reserve Medical Corps, where she enjoys the additional medical and leadership skills it has afforded her and her family.