From the farm to the hospital: Former Chief of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps driven by life’s challenges

By Christopher Hurd, Army News Service

WASHINGTON — As a young Army nurse at her first duty station in the intensive care unit on Fort Dix, New Jersey, then 2nd Lt. Clara Leach would go home each day and think about ways to improve her job performance. She was struggling at the time to get her work done and didn’t understand why.

“I absolutely loved my work, but we had some rules in nursing at that time that were a little bit bothersome in terms of getting your job done well,” she said.

One rule was nurses had to stand up whenever a physician entered the room, no matter what they were doing. She thought about that and realized it was slowing down her performance.

She made up her mind that day, she would not stand up unless she was needed.

As luck would have it, the next physician to walk into the room was the chief of the surgery department. It was now or never. She remained seated as he walked to her desk and cleared his throat.

“May I help you, sir?” she asked.

He looked down and said, “You can help me, lieutenant, by getting out of that chair.”

She held her ground and calmy made her case. She explained she would gladly get up if he needed something, but if not, she wanted to remain seated organizing the inventory books, which would allow her the time to take care of patients that evening.

He quietly turned around and walked away. She went back to work and thought to herself, “Oh, Clara you won that round.”

The rule was changed, not long after.

1st Lt. Clara Leach (left) instructs a student in intravenous therapy use during a medical-surgical nursing course at U.S. Army Medical Training Center, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, 1964.  She would go on to become the 18th Chief of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.

This wasn’t the first challenge Leach had to take on in her life, and as she learned earlier, the challenge was what drove her.

Growing up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, there was no shortage of challenges. Her and her nine siblings would often work in the fields from dawn to dusk while also having chores to finish before the day was over.

One day while she was milking the cow, she noticed it was skittish after being bit by a fly and was not producing the milk she needed. She knew she couldn’t go inside empty handed, so she kept at it. The cow had other plans and began to move around before ultimately stepping in the bucket and spilling all the milk.

She did the only thing she could, scream at the top of her lungs. Her father rushed out to see what happened. After understanding the situation, he comforted her and taught her how to handle it.

“I learned a lot on that farm about how to deal with animals and how to deal with my brother and sisters,” she said. “It was hard work, but I still say today that it got me ready for the work world in general, especially the world of nursing.”

Her parents wanted to instill in them a sense of pride in what they did and to teach them they could do anything they wanted if they were willing to work hard and never give up. They also placed a big emphasis on education.

That served her well as she graduated high school at 16, second in her class, and then went on to nursing school at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

Her family wasn’t rich, and her father had to borrow money from a local grocer for her to attend. Her father told her she would have to work for any extra money she needed.

Her hectic schedule didn’t allow much free time. As she walked through the student union one day, she saw a sign that said, ‘The Army Nurse Corp needs you.’

She looked at it and thought, “I bet they got money.”

Sure enough, they did. She signed up, and the Army paid for the last two years of school, while also giving her a monthly stipend.

“I was one of the richest kids on campus,” she said laughing. She even had enough money to send some home to her family.

While she was at school, she learned more about herself and her hunger to overcome adversity.

“I found nursing to be quite a challenge,” she explained. “The business of taking care of people when they are ill is not only a challenge for the people who are having the problem and their loved ones, but also for the people who have to take care of them.”

Once she understood that, she was all in. She commissioned in 1961 and set out to overcome the daily challenges of being an Army nurse.

At her first few hospitals, she worked in the intensive care units. These allowed her to gain valuable experience in a wide variety of tasks. It was tough work, but that was what she wanted.

Some nurses would complain about the daily grind. She would just look at them and say, “Let me tell you about them tobacco fields in North Carolina.”

It wasn’t just the daily grind at work she had to manage as she went overseas to South Korea. Here, she had to make sure she was taking care of herself as well as those around her.

1st Lt. Clara Leach poses for a photo at the Tachikawa Air Terminal in Tokyo, Japan, in 1964. She was returning home after a tour in South Korea.

“Some days are better than others, but the thing that you do as an Army nurse is that you get ready for the challenge every day,” she said.” Much of that challenge has to do with making sure that you care about yourself, and other people. You won’t know how to care about other people until you care about yourself first.”

She spent a lot of time overseas counseling young service members on how to represent themselves and the Army well. It was an added responsibility that she took on, but she did so willingly.

After leaving Korea, she turned her attention to teaching and education in Texas. She became an instructor at Fort Sam Houston where she trained combat medics. Then she got her master’s degree in medical-surgical nursing from the University of Minnesota before heading to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing to teach the next generation.

She enjoyed sharing knowledge with others and staying informed on the ever-changing medical field.

“I enjoyed those years of teaching, I really did,” she said. “I thought that was the ultimate in terms of jobs to have until I went on to be a chief nurse, and I found out that embodies the teaching and the hands-on care.”

She was promoted to colonel in 1981 and became the chief nurse at a hospital in Frankfurt, Germany. This assignment provided another opportunity to test herself by providing her nurses with the things they needed to get the job done.

“I felt the challenge to go out and find it for them because I knew if I didn’t, things were not going to be well for the home team,” she said with a chuckle.

She wouldn’t let that happened. She met this problem head on like so many others and found ways to utilize what she had to advance the practice.

Following her tour in Germany, she returned to the United States and became the first Nurse Corps student to graduate from the U.S. Army War College. Then in 1987, she was promoted to brigadier general and served as the chief of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps until 1991.

Brig. Gen. Clara Leach Adams-Ender, chief of the Army Nurse Corps, poses for a photo at her desk in Washington, D.C., in 1988. During this time, she faced many challenges, but none greater than getting nurses increased wages for their hard work.

During that time, she faced many challenges, but none greater than getting nurses increased wages for their hard work.

“Without nurses nothing functions well, because we really are the heartbeat of what goes on in the health care system,” she explained.

She was also able to set up the Army Medical Department Enlisted Commissioning Program, allowing service members to get paid while they finished their last two years of nursing school before commissioning.

Throughout her 34 years in service, retired Brig. Gen. Clara Leach Adams-Ender, never lost focus on the important things.

“I don’t let anything, or anyone stand in the way of me being able to provide care to people with excellence,” she said.

In 2019, she was inducted into the Army Women’s Hall of Fame. She now lives in Lake Ridge, Virginia, where she keeps up with her nursing practice and continues to find ways to challenge herself while helping others.

“I learned [to help others] very early in my lifetime,” she said. “When you have nine brothers and sisters there is always an opportunity to do something to help somebody.”

This week, May 6-12, is National Nurses Week and May is National Nurses Month, where Americans come together to show appreciation for everything nurses do. When asked about this yearly celebration, Adams-Ender said people should recognize nurses now and throughout the year.

“[Nurses] stand in the gap every day to try and make sure that they are able to save lives and to help people,” she said. “Thank a nurse today because they are truly special people.”

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