Anna Mae Hays, a legendary Army nurse and the first woman in the U.S. armed forces to wear the insignia of a brigadier general, has died at the age of 97, the Allentown Morning Call reported on Jan. 7.

Hays made history when, then a colonel in charge of the Army Nurse Corps, she was promoted to one-star rank by Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland on June 11, 1970. She used her role to advocate for women in the military, establishing herself as one of the major civil rights heroes of modern U.S. military history.

“She was an amazing woman who accomplished some great things and lived life on her terms,” her niece Doris Kressly told the Morning Call. Kressly added that she didn’t feel a sense of loss, because her aunt “lived a magnificent life and I’m glad she got to live it the way she did.”

Hays’ ascent to flag rank marked “the first time a female general officer had been promoted in the western world since Joan of Arc,” Westmoreland declared at the time. But Hays won’t just be remembered just for her pathbreaking elevation in the U.S. armed forces. She saw herself as a caregiver and soldier first and foremost — and she helped transform the face of modern Army medicine.

“I too wanted to serve”

Born in 1920, Hays had just graduated from the Allentown General Hospital School of Nursing and the American Red Cross when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. After learning of the devastation in Hawaii, Hays felt bound by duty to serve her country. “The war was declared on 7 December 1941, and from that time until I joined in May of 1942, the papers were full of stories about individuals serving their country,” Hays told the Army Heritage Center Foundation in 1983. “[B]eing a nurse, I too wanted to serve my country.”

Army photo

Anna Mae Hays after enlisting in the Army Nurse Corps in 1941.Army Medicine History Department Archives)

Hays spent her deployments caring for U.S. troops in some of the world’s most desolate areas. After enlisting in the Women’s Army Corps, she deployed with the 20th General Hospital to India in 1943 to support soldiers developing overland supply lines with China. After the defeat of the Axis, Hays nurse remained on active duty and deployed to Korea with the 4th Field Hospital as part of the famous 1950 Inchon Landing.

“If you would ask me what are the first things you can remember about Korea, I would say its cold weather, odor, and its stark-nakedness. It had nothing,” she told the Army Heritage Center. “And, when I compare Korea with my experiences in World War II, I think of Korea as even worse than the jungle in World War II, because of the lack of supplies, lack of warmth, etc., in the operating room.”

After rising to the rank of colonel and serving as head ER nurse at Walter Reed (and, just a month later, acting as a private nurse to President Dwight Eisenhower during his hospitalization there), Hays was sworn in as the 13th chief of the Army Nurse Corps in 1967. That was the same year that new legislation opened the doors for female officers to rise within the U.S. armed forces’ ranks by removing caps on the number of colonels and lieutenant colonels in the ANC.

A glass ceiling

Hays herself attended President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing ceremony for that bill in 1967. “I can recall, as the senior female officer, that I was called upon to read the citation when a Legion of Merit was presented to one of our Army nurses who had just returned from Vietnam,” she told the Army in 1983. “I just couldn't believe that I, just little me, was reading a citation in the East Room of the White House.”

Her ascension through the ranks was not met kindly; the resurgent women’s rights movement was not entirely embraced by “tradition-minded” leadership of the Women’s Army Corps. (According to the Washington Post, Westmoreland presented Hays with “a brassy kiss” on the mouth along with her new silver star, jokingly stating that it was part of “a new protocol for congratulating lady generals.”)

Hays fought back. She pushed Army leadership to relax strict standards governing women in the armed forces on multiple issues. “We started talking about maternity leave in the form of ordinary and excess leave for female officers,” Hays said in 1983. “This was finally authorized by Army Regulation in January 1970. Of course, at that time it was for the married officer.”

A lasting legacy

Army photo

The official Army portrait of Brig. Gen. Anna Mae Hays after her promotion in 1970U.S. Army photo

Hays’ broader legacy is built on more than just gender-advancement. According to the Army Heritage Center, Korea exposed her to the latest post-WWII medical advancements, from antibiotics to the airborne medevac, and she spent her four years as chief of the ANC during the Vietnam War convincing the Army “that nursing was important enough to spend money on — a hard sell at that time,” as Army Office of Medical History historian Sanders Marble told the Washington Post.

Her visits to Vietnam in the 1960s further convinced her that Army medicine needed to change. She began to share her concerns “on the conditions of our hospitals; effectiveness of our personnel, not only the Army Nurse Corps officers, but other officers of the Army Medical team; on the evacuation procedures; on supplies, whether they were in short supply; on the dire need of dieticians, physical therapists, and psychiatrists to be assigned in Vietnam, etc,” she told the Army in 1983.

She became the guiding force behind the Army Nursing Contemporary Practice program, established at the height of the conflict in 1968, to modernize the service’s use of nurses. She established new training programs and oversaw a major jump in the numbers of nurses deployed in downrange. She was responsible for major changes in how the nursing staffs helped shape Army medical policy. She raised standards and personally helped recruit talented nurses and caregivers. Thanks to Hays, nurses became a critical component of how the U.S. military practices emergency medicine.

Though Hays retired from the military nearly half a century ago, her service to the nation continued to define her life. “One day being responsible to the Surgeon General for 21,000 men and women, who represented one-fifth of the more than 103,000 Army Medical Department personnel, and then the next day, not having any responsibility, is quite an adjustment to make,” Hays said of her retirement in 1983. “I’ve missed the Army. I miss being part of a moving, dynamic situation.”