TAMPA — During her time as an Army nurse in World War II, treating the wounded in North Africa, Normandy and the Ardennes Forest, Martha Cameron proved to be a pioneer in more ways than one.
One of the first women to land in France after D-day, part of a corps of 18,000 female Army nurses who helped care for nearly 8 million soldiers, Cameron worked to mitigate the carnage of war.
But beyond the amputations and disfigurement, it was the psychological damage she often found most vexing — a realization that has gained broad acceptance only in modern times as hundreds of thousands of service members serve in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts around the globe.
"The wounds you can’t see were harder to treat than the ones you can see," Cameron said Wednesday, just after celebrating her 100th birthday at Canterbury Tower retirement home where she has lived the past two decades. "You just felt an obligation to do what you saw needed to be done."
Martha Cameron was born Sept. 5, 1918, in Virginia at the height of World War I. The words don’t come easily these days, but thanks to a 2012 interview she did with Navy veteran Hobart Kistler and others, much of her story is preserved.
As a teen, she spent time caring for her mother, who suffered from breast cancer. That experience spurred her to become a nurse.
Early into her first job, at the Jersey City Medical Center in New Jersey, her life and the course of world events changed dramatically.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, she woke at the hospital to hear people talking about a raid on a faraway base called Pearl Harbor. The next morning, she signed up to become an Army nurse.
"It was sheer patriotism, really," she told Kistler.
Long before women were allowed to serve in combat roles, she and many others saw nursing as the fastest way to the front.
At the time, there were fewer than 1,000 nurses on the rolls, according to an official history of the Army Nurse Corps. Within six months, there were 12,000.
In July 1942, Cameron, then 23, traveled with her medical unit across the Atlantic to England. Initially, the workload was light and she found it a time of adventure.
"We had lots of dances, trips to London, Shakespearean plays, and really no scandals or startling stories to speak of," she told Kinstler.
That all changed within four months when Allied forces invaded North Africa.
The initial resistance was light, but as the Allies chased the Germans deeper into North Africa, the number of patients grew.
On June 10, 1944, four days after the Normandy invasion, Cameron’s unit lined up to head to shore.
She was one of the first women in the combat zone.
"At one point, the beach-master, who was making the rounds of the ships in a little launch, came alongside us and exclaimed: ‘Jeez! Women!’ " Cameron told Kinstler. "That gave us some indication that we were about to be the first girls ashore in France."
As a nurse administering anesthesia, "You just felt an obligation to keep them free of pain," Cameron said in an interview.
She sat down to talk for a few minutes, after the speeches, the cake and the presentation of challenge coins that marked a birthday celebration attended by about two dozen people — friends, family members and military personnel from MacDill Air Force Base.
Among them was base commander and Air Force Col. Steve Snelson.
Cameron spent her 26th birthday in a newly liberated Paris. A few months later, in December 1944, she was treating troops during the Battle of the Bulge.
"I saw a lot of amputations," she said.
After the war, Cameron returned to service, this time with the new U.S. Air Force. She retired in the 1960s as a lieutenant colonel. She continued to serve as a civilian nurse, finally retiring in 1988.
Though she served decades before medical personnel fully understood post-traumatic stress, she understood the importance of treating unseen injuries — a realization memorialized in words now etched in glass at the American Veterans Disabled for Life memorial in Washington, D.C.
"The wounds one could see were often less severe than the psychological injuries they brought with them," her quote there reads. "My heart went out to each of them."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.