Standing on the Shoulders of Angels

Jun 10, 2013, 9:37 AM, Posted by Beth Toner

Sixty-nine years ago, on June 6, 1944, a 25-year-old Army captain from New Hampshire parachuted into the Normandy countryside outside the small French village of Sainte-Mère-Église as part of the Allied invasion known as D-Day. A member of the fledgling 82nd Airborne Division, he would count himself lucky to survive that jump,  three other World War II combat jumps, and the Battle of the Bulge. A self-described “career Army man,” he would go on to fight in both the Korean and Vietnam wars—and marry my mother in 1988. I was already living on my own when they married, so I had only occasional opportunities to get to know him.

While he could be curmudgeonly and opinionated, Colonel Robert M. Piper (I called him “The Colonel” throughout his life) was also brilliant and generous. My biggest regret is that I didn’t learn enough about the history in which he so actively participated until it was too late. The last time he set foot in that small village was in 2004, the 60th anniversary of the invasion. He passed away in 2007, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

I make amends, in my own small way, by visiting Arlington every time I’m in Washington, D.C. This week, I laid a flower at his grave on a beautiful, cloudless summer day. Then—on a whim—I walked up the steep hill overlooking DC to the Nurses Memorial, something I’d been meaning to do since I read We Band of Angels, which chronicled the ordeals of the nurses captured by the Japanese and interred at Bataan during World War II.

What I saw took my breath away. Laid out across the sprawling hillside in military precision were row upon row of stark white headstones—all of them nurses—dating back at least to the Spanish-American War. One headstone listed a mother and a daughter, both nurses—and both served in the Spanish-American War. At the top of the hill, a granite statue of a nurse in uniform watches over her comrades. I thought about the struggles these nurses had faced caring for “their” soldiers: unsanitary conditions, limited supplies, and, of course, the constant threat of enemy fire. They were hungry, discouraged, and exhausted. Yet their efforts helped countless men like my stepfather reach ripe old age before they made that last trip to Arlington.

As a nurse, I was humbled to be in their presence, and I thought about all these nurses contributed to the legacy and knowledge of our profession, most often without thought of praise or recognition. It reminded me that while yes, nursing (like any other health care profession) faces its own unique challenges, we can, when we band together to do what we were trained to do, change the course of history. Our challenge now, as we look to the future we wish to create, is to learn as much as we can from that “band of angels”—and like them, do our very best, every day, for those we serve.