USAF nurse paved way for other women

Retired Air Force Major Mary McGuirk of Westbrook has received honors for her nursing service.

Retired Air Force Major Mary McGuirk of Westbrook has received honors for her nursing service.

WESTBROOK — A retired Air Force nurse from Westbrook has long made a difference in the lives of others, both in war and on the homefront.

She cared for the combat wounded in Vietnam, and her persistence to continue serving as a widowed mother helped lead to a policy change allowing women with dependent children to have military careers.

Maj. Mary “Dottie” McGuirk, U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps retired, saw duty in a Southeast Asia jungle and in the air. She flew multiple flights as a surgical nurse aboard aircraft evacuating those seriously wounded during the Vietnam War. Her patients were flown to Hickham Air Force Base in Hawaii and Clark Air Force Base in the Phillipines and some to the states.

“We picked up 90 patients,” McGuirk recalled about the number on each flight.

She had one other nurse and four medical technicians assigned aboard flights. The C-141 aircraft served as hospital emergency wards 35,000 feet in the air.

Many of the wounded were destined to lose limbs. “I had to change my crew around so they wouldn’t get depressed,” she said.

She also worked in operating rooms, such as at Clark Air Force Base. “It was heartbreaking,” she recalled.

Some of her patients’ cases caused doctors to break down outside operating rooms. “Many days doctors would come out of surgery, lean on a wall and cry,” she said.

McGuirk, 88, a Westbrook native,  graduated in 1950 from the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing. She worked in the operating room at Mercy and then at Togus, the veteran’s hospital in Augusta, before being commissioned in the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps in 1954.

She retired from the military in 1978.

She was honored last month as the 2017 recipient of Sister M. Consuela White Mercy Spirit award from the Mercy Hospital Nursing Alumni Association for “67 years of exemplary, dedicated nursing practice.”

She since was one of the veterans selected to fly to Washington, D.C., aboard Honor Flight Maine. At Arlington National Cemetery, McGuirk placed a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

She knows what it’s like to lose loved ones. Two husbands, both Air Force pilots,  were killed in aircraft crashes.

During her second marriage, she was honorably discharged after 14 years of active duty. A chaplain knocked on her door at 4 a.m. on Oct. 4, 1968, to bring her the devastating news about her husband.

A widow with two boys under age 18, McGuirk then began a four-year battle to reclaim her Air Force commission. She got the runaround.

She was once told to put her boys out for adoption and she would be recalled. “Doesn’t that make you sick,” she said.

Not to be denied, she finally went over heads of the brass and wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force. She received a response in nine days with orders to return to active duty in the hospital at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

McGuirk became the first woman with dependent children to be recalled to active duty and earned her 20-year retirement.

“I broke the mold,” she said. “Now, women can serve on active duty, love their babies and careers.”

McGuirk has served as commander of the Stephen W. Manchester Post 62 of the American Legion in Westbrook. She is active at St. Anthony’s Church and raises funds for the Travis Mills Foundation.

In addition to her military medals and honors, she even received Papal recognition. “She was knighted by the former Pope John Paul II,” her sister-in-law, Nola Chaisson, said in a printed bio.

Robert Lowell can be reached at 854-2577 or