Alene B Duerk: Trailblazer who became the US Navy’s first female rear admiral

‘I’m more than an officer. I’m a symbol, for women in the navy and the military. Women thinking of careers like mine can know that the ultimate is possible’ When Alene B Duerk left her job in a department store to enlist in the US navy nurse corps, at the height of Second World War , she envisioned a few months’ service to her country followed by a swift return to civilian life.

Yet after treating scores of wounded sailors and prisoners of war, working alongside other smart, ambitious women in the corps, she found that the navy provided a sense of mission and camaraderie that she felt was missing from her workaday life back home in Toledo.

She went on to military career of nearly 30 years as a ward manager, surgical nurse, recruiter, educator and barrier-breaking administrator, serving in the early 1970s as the navy’s top nurse and first female admiral.

Admiral Duerk, who died in Florida aged 98, oversaw a broad expansion of the nurse corps and came to represent the dawning of a new, more equitable era for women in the navy.

Duerk was promoted from captain to rear admiral on 1 June 1972, at a ceremony that culminated with Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the reform-minded chief of naval operations, offering her a congratulatory kiss on the lips. Read more She would have been legally barred from the rank – the equivalent of an army major general – just five years earlier, under rules that blocked women from becoming general or flag officers in the armed forces. But those restrictions were removed under President Lyndon B Johnson, and in 1970, Anna Mae Hays, chief of the army nurse corps, became America’s first female general.

With her promotion, Duerk became the de facto media spokesperson for women in the navy, including the 2,300 nurses in her charge as well as women in the supply corps and female enlistees known by their Second World War-era acronym, Waves: Women accepted for volunteer emergency services. Duerk at a promotion ceremony in 1972 with Admiral Elmo ‘Bud’ Zumwalt, left “Being the first of anything has its responsibilities,” Duerk said in 1972. “I’m more than an officer. I’m a symbol, for women in the navy and the military. Women thinking of careers like mine can know that the ultimate is possible.”

Her main priority remained the nurse corps and its 39 hospitals, which she had directed since 1970.

In a recent story for The Sextant , a navy blog , medical historian André Sobocinski wrote that Duerk “provided astute and forward-thinking direction for the nurse corps, scrapping outmoded policies negatively affecting navy medicine, expanding the sphere of nursing into ambulatory care, anaesthesia, paediatrics and obstetrics/gynaecology, emphasising the value of the individual officer and increasing educational opportunities for nurses”.

Pay and promotion opportunities for nurses increased, he added, and “the retention rate more than doubled”.

Duerk was born in Defiance, Ohio, in 1920. When she was very young, the family home was frequented by nurses tending to her father, who had faced […]

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