How I broke the mold for women to serve in the military

A story by Mary D. McGuirk from 1950s-1970s

Mary D. McGuirk at Mather AFB, California serving in the 35/75th Air Force Recruiting unit, 1965

Major Mary D. McGuirk, USAF (NC) Retired with 20 years of active duty service.

In March 11, 1954 I was commissioned as 1st Lieutenant in the United States Air Force (USAF) Nurses Corps and reported to Vance Air Force Base (AFB) Hospital, Enid, OK. Assignment: Charge Nurse of the operating room and central supply. Here I met my first husband Capt. Gerald D. Johnson, who was an Air Force pilot, and we were married February 23, 1957.

McDill AFB, Tampa FL was my next assignment as operating room charge nurse plus outpatient clinic and central supply. My husband was assigned to the B-47 aircraft group. We were at the base one month when he was killed in B-47 over St. Petersburg bridge.

Burderop AFB in Swindon, England was my third assignment, where I spent two years. I received orders to repost to Seattle, WA. for Recruiting Duty, which covered all the West Coast, Utah, Montana, Idaho and Hawaii. I did this for three years.

Next was an assignment to Hickham AFB, Hawaii on Air Evacuation duty aboard a C-141 aircraft that was converted from a large cargo aircraft to a medical flight hospital ward. During the Vietnam War, we carried 90 wounded with two nurses and four medical technicians. We flew at 35,000 feet and busy for the eight or nine hours of light to our destination. We covered all of Southeast Asia, Japan, Philippines, US, etc. During the assignment, I married my second husband, Maj. Laurence A. McGuirk, a widow with a 7 year-old son. The ceremony took place at Hickham AFB chapel on May 7, 1966. My husband, an Air Force pilot, was stationed at Clark AFB, Hawaii.

In December of 1966, I was needed at Clark AFB Hospital in the Philippines, assigned to the busy operating room and central supply as charge nurse. We started every day with 45 pints of blood and we had at least 45-50 casualty cases per morning, plus our regular base patients in the afternoon. I became pregnant, my husband received orders for Minot AFB, ND, when I was five months pregnant. I was discharged at Travis AFB in February 1968. Larry attended the B52 upgrading classes in California and I had my baby at Mercy Hospital, Portland, Maine via a C-section on June 12, 1968. We joined my husband at Minot AFB when my son was 6 weeks old. October 4, 1968 my husband was killed in a B-52 that crashed 13 miles north of the base in North Dakota.

I moved the family to San Antonio, TX. My mother came with me and continued to live with us. I tried several ways to return to active duty with no success. Answers stated the following: No specialty, no major ever recalled to active duty with children under 18 years, put children up for adoption and we will take you back on active duty. I was working as a 3-11 supervisor at Methodist Hospital and attending Incarnate Word College, working on my Nursing Degree. One night I decided to write to Robert Seamans Jr., United States Secretary of the Air Force, and requested his help. He answered me in nine days and ordered me back on active duty in the Air Force Nurse Corps, assigned to Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, TX.

On February 2, 1972 I was a Major Reserve, with my next assignment from 1974-1975 to NKP (Nakhon Phanom), Thailand, an isolated town. I served as Chief Nurse of a small hospital in the jungle for an Air Force clinic, without the family, for one year. I returned to the States, assigned to Pope AFB in North Carolina as Chief Nurse of the Air Force clinic. I retired June 2, 1978.

I was the first female who was recalled to active duty with two boys under 18 years of age. I broke the mold. Now females with children in all military branches can serve their country.

Mary D. McGuirk at Vance AFB, Oklahoma, 1955

Mary D. McGuirk receiving Maine’s Honorable Service Award at a Southern Maine Agency on Aging, Vet to Vet Awards Ceremony in 2015, from Peter Ogden, then director of the Maine Bureau of Veterans' Services.

Mary D. McGuirk, second from right with her crew of nurses in NKP, Thailand, 1974