Altoona nursing faculty member honors nurses who served our country

Every year, Veterans Day is an occasion for Americans to honor and remember those who serve our country in the armed forces and the sacrifices they make for our freedom.

Julie Decker, for her part, remembers the nurses—and not just on Veterans Day.

For 10 years, Decker, an instructor in nursing at Penn State Altoona, has taken part in military re-enactments to educate the public about the role nurses played in America’s wars — specifically the Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam. These historical recreations take place in Pennsylvania as well as Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

As part of her involvement, Decker conducts extensive research into what it was like to be a nurse on the battlefront at various times in history.

“I’ve been a nurse for a long time. I’ve worked in intensive care and seen some perilous situations. But I’ve never experienced anything like what these nurses went through,” Decker said. “I am so immensely proud to say that I am part of their profession.”

In Civil War reenactments, Decker offers a historical interpretation of the Daughters of Charity, a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, whose members were the preferred nurses of the surgeons of both the Union and Confederate armies. Nursing was still in its infancy then, as the first U.S. nursing schools were not established until the mid-19th century. Thus, the Catholic sisters were pressed into service largely without the formal scientific training that is required of nurses today.

“The sisters worked endlessly and tirelessly. They did not sleep until the last soldier in the hospital was asleep,” said Decker. “They took orders with no disdain.”

As historian William Barnaby Faherty wrote, “When the Civil War broke out, the Union and Confederacy were prepared to fight, but they weren’t prepared to care for the wounded that their fighting created.” The Daughters of Charity rose to the challenge, providing care to any soldier who needed it, regardless of which side they were fighting for.

“This set the paradigm for what nursing has become today, “said Decker, noting that nurses consider the welfare of all humankind to be their responsibility.

World War II and Vietnam, with their widely varying levels of patriotism and shifting expectations of the profession, posed their own challenges for nurses.

“Vietnam had an element of patriotism that started with President Kennedy’s inaugural speech, when he said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,’” Decker notes. The turning point in the war was the Tet Offensive of 1968, after which American support of the war and the military declined. This tremendously affected nurses returning from the front, who fell victim to the antiwar sentiment in some areas of the country.

“Nurses were advised, like their male military counterparts, to not return home in uniform for fear of public ridicule and possible violence,” said Decker. “They fell victim to post-traumatic stress syndrome and other psychological effects of war to the same degree as their comrades on the front line.

“Nurses said they often felt all alone in the war, except for their comrades, because of the loss of faith in the military back home,” she continued. “In essence, they were binding the wounds of battle as well as the psychological wounds inflicted on many.”

These kinds of personal experiences are the reason re-enactment is so important, she believes.

“This is the kind of thing that’s not taught in history books,” she said. “Veterans need to talk about their experiences.”

Re-enactment is a family affair for Decker, whose husband and two teenagers are involved as well. Her husband, Doug, plays the part of a Civil War surgeon, and both son and daughter participate in Civil War and World War II re-enactments.

“From a parent’s perspective, it’s such a positive environment for young people,” she said. “It’s especially great for them to experience a time when there were no cellphones or modern devices, and learn how people survived.”

Part of the learning experience for her son and daughter is talking with the veterans who attend the reenactments and hearing their stories.

“There’s such a swell of patriotism when the kids get to shake the hands of veterans who served from World War II to the present day and thank them for their service,” she says. “It really is a gift.”

As part of her research and re-enacting involvement, Decker has collected many items used by nurses in wartime. These include the pins they wore and a stethoscope used by a World War II nurse, which she proudly displays in her office and sometimes uses in class.

“We need to appreciate and know our history. Learning about these brave women and men who set a very high bar for future nurses has increased my pride in the profession I have chosen,” she said.

Decker, who teaches undergraduate nursing courses in Penn State Altoona’s associate degree, Second Degree, and RN to B.S. programs, is using her experiences to develop a course to help prepare nurses to assist veterans returning from active duty.

“As Calvin Coolidge said, ‘The nation that forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten,’” she said. “We really need to thank our veterans and do more for them. We owe them our many freedoms.”

Media Contacts: 

Beverly Molnar

Work Phone: 
Cell Phone: 

Marketing Communications Specialist, College of Nursing

Last Updated November 12, 2013