Searching for the ‘unsung heroes’

Searching for the ‘unsung heroes’

Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing Professor Emerita Diana Hackbarth is shown in the second row, far right, of this 1968 photo of graduating U.S. Navy nurses. Hackbarth is leading a group of retired School of Nursing faculty, assisted by a Loyola University Chicago archivist, that is seeking to find Loyola nurse veterans and document their stories.

Several retired Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing faculty are seeking to honor the bravery of what they call the school’s “unsung heroes”—graduates who served as military nurses—by documenting their stories.  

“Nurses often go unrecognized, and that’s also true of nurse veterans,” said Professor Emerita Diana Hackbarth, who retired in 2020. “We want to find these veterans because we know they’re out there and we want to preserve their stories, and by doing so, we’re preserving a part of the School of Nursing’s history.”  

Hackbarth, a public health nursing educator and former director of Loyola’s School-Based Health Center at Proviso East High School, is leading an effort by several former faculty to create a multigenerational database of veterans with connections to the School of Nursing. Loyola University Chicago Archivist Kathy Young is playing a central role in research for the project, which is part of a larger endeavor to record the School of Nursing’s 88-year legacy as a leader in nursing education.  

The group hopes to collect firsthand accounts from veterans, including current Loyola students with military backgrounds. 

The passage of time, however, has made finding veterans from earlier generations harder. That’s why the faculty group is asking for help from family members, friends, and former classmates in identifying veterans, both living and deceased.  

Professor Emerita Mary Ann McDermott, a two-time acting dean who held a number of roles within the School of Nursing before retiring in 2002, said the initiative is an effort to celebrate the heroism of nurse veterans, who often worked in dangerous conditions. Because nursing has traditionally been a women’s profession, she said, their contributions were frequently ignored.   

“It was the same for women throughout the (military) services. Even the WAVES and WACs had a hard time getting their retirement benefits,” McDermott noted, referring to the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service and the Women’s Army Corps of World War II.  

‘I just did what any nurse would do’ 

Those involved in the project said nurse veterans embody the highest ideals of the nursing profession: self-sacrifice, adaptability, and a dedication to providing care to anyone in need.  

Associate Professor Emerita Karen Egenes pointed to the 108th Army General Hospital as an example. The unit was formed largely of Loyola-affiliated medical professionals during World War I and was reactivated during World War II, when members were sent to England and spent nearly a year preparing for their role in the invasion of Europe. 

The 108th crossed the English Channel several weeks after the June 1944 D-Day invasion, eventually setting up a hospital in Paris and treating patients—both Allied troops and German prisoners of war—injured later that year in the Battle of the Bulge.  

A nursing historian who retired in 2018, Egenes traveled to Paris several years ago to visit the hospital and has interviewed 108th troops who recalled massive casualties from the offensive, with “a line of ambulances that just went on forever,” she said.  

“They went through some really tough times, yet they were very self-effacing. They said, ‘I just did what any nurse would do in that situation.’” 

A personal mission 

For Hackbarth, the veterans project is personal. She was among the approximately one dozen members of her class that joined the Navy Nurse Corps after graduation in 1968, at the height of protests against the Vietnam War. 

Hackbarth opposed the war but felt called to serve her country as a health care professional.  

“It was consistent with the Jesuit mission of care of the sick and the most vulnerable,” she explained. “We were giving of ourselves for the greater good and for a greater cause.”  

She hopes the project will help today’s nursing students better understand the value of their profession and see the parallels between the past and the present—and between military and civilian nurses. During the coronavirus pandemic, for example, nurses worked under conditions of extreme stress and at a great personal risk, putting themselves in danger to save others.   

“Nurses have a long history of being the unsung heros, and helping the nation overcome major health care challenges and supporting important endeavors,” Hackbarth said. “Now, we want to inspire the next generation. We need a newer generation that continues to believe, yes, we can make a difference and make the world a better place.” 


School of Nursing graduates who served in the military, as well as current and former faculty and students who know of others who served, can contact Hackbarth at dhackba@luc.edu to share their stories.