By Grace Houdek
Mary Jane Esser ’68 (née Roberts) was only a sophomore in college when she made the decision to enroll in the military as a nurse post-graduation. Having no prior relationship to the service at all, she knew it was something her parents would not be accepting of. However, she felt like she did not have much of a choice.
“[My parents] were not happy about it at all, but they knew financially I didn’t have another choice really,” said Esser. “I would’ve had to drop out or go to a three-year school or do something different, so they accepted it anyway.”
In 1964, Esser began attending the University of Wisconsin–Madison on a financial needs-based scholarship. She kept good grades and served as the president of the Sigma chapter of Alpha Tau Delta, a national fraternity for professional nurses. But after purchasing the very car she would later use to start her new life, her scholarship got revoked as she no longer could prove financial need, leaving her with no other option to afford to attend the university she loved so much.
As a result, Esser met with recruiters and signed papers to join the military, agreeing to serve three years in exchange for financial support to cover books and tuition. With this much-needed support, Esser quit her job and focused on enjoying her time as a Badger.
“I just went, and I didn’t tell my mom,” said Esser. “We had a meeting, went through the Edgewater Hotel [in Madison, Wisconsin], and I signed up then went home to tell my parents I did it.”
Life as a Military Nurse
What started as a means to an end became an experience no money could ever buy. In 1968, Esser and seven of her UW–Madison School of Nursing classmates were commissioned as second lieutenants in the Army Nurse Corps. Esser packed up her 1967 Mercury Cougar and made her way to San Antonio, Texas, for basic training and Army nursing training. After completing her training, she was sent to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri where she was stationed for the rest of her military career.
Approximately three weeks after being stationed at General Leonard Wood Army Hospital, Esser got orders from her night nursing supervisor to go to Japan. Being there for such a short period of time, Esser asked to postpone her deployment.
“In the long run, I’m sorry I stayed. I wish I would’ve gone. I never did get to go overseas at all,” said Esser.
Living about half an hour away from the base, Esser reported to the unit every day in her starched button-down uniform and pointy hat. Her day-to-day life varied as she constantly moved around the hospital. ￼In addition to caring for servicemen, she also worked with their families and civilians. She started in the orthopedic surgery unit and eventually transitioned to the emergency room.
“No matter where we were, we were busy all the time. When I was in the emergency room, we worked 13 [days] on and four off,” said Esser. “We were very busy in the emergency room because we did sick calls for the incoming troops, and then we did emergency care for the troops and also for the civilians, so car accidents and anything like that came to us.”
Helicopters flew in every day, bringing more and more people into the hospital. “We were never not full, there were over 1,200 guys in the three buildings.”
Esser shared her experiences of witnessing men physically hurt themselves — doing anything they could to not go into war such as shooting their hands off the night before they were going to be sent into duty. It was times like these where Esser and the other young nurses only had each other for support.
“The other nurses on the unit were very supportive; we were all supportive of each other. But the fact I didn’t live on post or live in a dorm or anything with some of the others, I don’t actually think I got that much support from them because I would go home at night,” said Esser.
Esser’s final assignment was in the pediatric unit, a smaller and less busy facility, but one she says was an eye-opening experience.
“Unfortunately, we had a lot of child abuse. We had a lot of kids that had to be placed or taken from their families or had a lot of counseling done,” said Esser. “The dads were either using the same tactics on their children that they were using on the troops, or the moms were not dealing with the separation of their spouses being in the war or being gone.”
Despite the challenging and at times distressing moments as a military nurse, Esser said she was able to take charge with responsibilities she would not have been offered anywhere else as a young nurse. While she valued these opportunities, she said that working with and caring for so many inspiring men, women, and children was the most rewarding aspect of her experience.
“They were just a delight, most of them, which was amazing to me,” said Esser. “They were so glad to be home and be with other guys and couldn’t wait to get back to their homes. They were pretty much happier than I thought they would be with the circumstances at the time”
A Heart for Service
Her time as a nurse in the military was cut short when she got pregnant with her firstborn in 1970. The Vietnam War was still going on when Esser got home to Wisconsin. Feeling a bit of guilt after leaving, she joined several organizations relating to peace movements and volunteered at blood drives and clinics around the Madison area.
“I was bothered by that for a long time, too. I felt bad I got out and didn’t have to go [overseas]. I tried to do some things after I got back home at the VA or different things I volunteered for to make myself feel better about not having gone,” said Esser. “In the long run, my beautiful daughter was worth it.”
Esser shared how times as a nursing student now are much different from when she was enrolled at UW. In addition to traditional bedside care, students can now take their degree in several directions, including continuing their education in graduate school, teaching, or pursuing further research. And though the military has changed drastically since she served, she encourages students to join if that is their calling.
“I would still tell somebody to do it. I mean, I learned things you would never learn anywhere else. We were able to do things there that we weren’t able to do back at home, like IV training, field triage, firing an M-16, and setting up mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) units.” Esser said. “We just did everything; we didn’t have to ask for permission. We were the only ones there, so we just did it.”