Brigadier General Anna Mae Hays epitomized the phrase “selfless service” during her 29 years in the United States military. She was the first American woman to have ever achieved the rank of General, and she joined the military at the height of U.S. involvement in WWII. She died on January 7, 2018 of complications from a heart attack at the age of 97.

Brig. Gen. Hays began her career as an Army nurse, joining in 1942 where she would serve in a field hospital in India. There, the field hospital would attend to approximately 49,000 patients garnering an extensive amount of experience for her as a nurse. According to the Army Heritage Center, she said,

I joined during World War II. As you know, the war was declared on 7 December 1941, and from that time until I joined in May of 1942, the papers were full of stories about individuals serving their country. [B]eing a nurse, I too wanted to serve my country.”

American Heritage Center

After two years of working in the austere conditions there, far out in a marginalized area, she was promoted from 2nd to 1st Lt. The war ended soon after, but she continued to serve.

She was a part of the mass amphibious invasion when the Korean War kicked off, deployed to the 4th Field Hospital. There she found the conditions to be even worse than her posting in WWII, in both equipment, living conditions and the harshness of the environment. They certainly had their work cut out for them: the field hospital there would care for over 25,000 patients — one night she and her staff were overwhelmed with 700 patients, and they were forced to make do with what they had.

Years after the Korean War, Hays would become the head ER nurse at the Walter Reed General Hospital. However, her experiences with war were still not yet over. During the Vietnam war, she would deploy three times to the country to ensure the effectiveness of nurses working in the area. Under her leadership and through programs she developed, a significantly higher number of well-trained nurses served in the Vietnam War to support and save wounded combat troops.

She was the 13th chief of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, and in 1970 she would be promoted and became the first female Brigadier General in U.S. Armed Forces history. In 2013, there were 69 female Generals in the military.

Not only did she provide an example for young women entering the military after her, she was instrumental in getting many policies regarding women changed as well — to include military regulations surrounding two service members married to one another, to stop women from getting discharged upon pregnancy, and in turn to allow for maternity leave — just to name a few.