As a young second-year nursing student at Iowa Methodist School of Nursing in Des Moines, Marta Ford (then Marta Eichner, a 1962 Lynnville-Sully graduate) made a decision to use her medical training to serve as a Registered Nurse in the U.S. Army.
When Ford, currently of Newton and formerly of Killduff, had completed two years of the three-year, year-round study in the RN program at Iowa Methodist in 1964, she committed herself to serving in the Army Nurse Corps where she was given the rank of PFC (Private First Class) while finishing her education and obtaining her RN degree. Ford’s father had served in the Army Air Corps during World War II by taking part as a B27 bombardier in missions based in North Africa, and his military service had influenced her from a young age. During the five months from the time she earned her RN degree in early 1965 until she passed the nursing board exams in August of that year, Ford worked as a graduate nurse at Skiff hospital in Newton, living with her grandmother in Newton. In late 1965 as a result of passing her RN exams, Ford had earned the rank of Second Lieutenant. She had now attained all of her goals to join the active Army.
In early 1966 during the time of the Vietnam War, Ford left Iowa for eight weeks of basic training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, TX. All Army medical personnel, both doctors and nurses, went through basic at Fort Sam Houston at the Medical Field Service School there. Ford saw a vast difference between the demeanors of the doctors during basic training, as compared to those of the nurses. She explained most of the doctors had been drafted, many right out of medical school, but all of the nurses were volunteers. She knew she’d made the right decision with her nursing career. “I knew nursing, but not the Army,” Ford recalled about basic. She’d fired weapons and camped out in the wilds of Texas, but was comfortable in her capacity as an RN.
After completing basic training, Ford was sent to Kenner Army Hospital at Fort Lee, VA, outside Petersburg. The hospital had been built in the late 1950s or early 1960s, so it was a nice facility. It was here that she experienced a real culture shock, having more freedom and responsibility for herself than she’d had before and being exposed to people with backgrounds that were much different from hers. It was then she realized how strict the environment had been in nursing school in Des Moines, as was prevalent in most nursing schools throughout Iowa at the time. And now she was 21 years old, often in a supervisory position as a Second Lieutenant officer, an opportunity instrumental in developing the leadership skills she’s used throughout her adult life. Ford found it was sometimes challenging to be an officer, being the same age as most of the enlisted people on the base. She fondly remembers her Chief Nurse at the hospital, who served as a great mentor to the young Army nurses at Fort Lee by navigating them through many of the challenges they faced there.
Ford spent three years at Fort Lee on active duty, during which she spent three months at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, on TDY (Temporary Duty). After serving at Fort Lee for a year, Ford was promoted to First Lieutenant. Her duties at the Kenner Army Hospital were varied, including taking care of the medical needs of soldiers who were either ready to be sent to Vietnam or those returning back to the States. The soldiers who had the worst injuries were usually sent to Walter Reed rather than base hospitals. Ford also worked in the hospital’s clinic where she took care of spouses and children of soldiers who were deployed to Vietnam, as well as officers who were stationed on the base. She had served as a nurse supervisor, and also as a head nurse in the OB/gyn area.
One of the more memorable “culture shock” moments Ford remembers from her time at Fort Lee was during the days following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Apr. 4, 1968. Ford and another off-duty nurse went to Washington, DC, to see what was going on there, simply as curious citizens not in any official capacity. She said they should not have gone, realizing they were “bystanders that shouldn’t have been there.” Washington, DC was one of the many cities in the U.S. where riots broke out for several days following Dr. King’s assassination, and Ford remembers the presence of active duty troops armed with M16 rifles assisting the local police force by providing crowd control, curfew enforcement, and protection of federal government structures.
Ford was eligible for an honorable discharge from the Army after two years of service, but she remained for one more year, attaining the rank of Captain. When she completed her active duty service in 1969 after three years, she briefly remained in the Petersburg, VA, area, working in the E.R. at one of the local hospitals. After working as a civilian nurse in a bad area of town and dealing with a high rate of people being abandoned at the E.R. with gunshot wounds and left for near-dead, Ford knew it was time to return to Iowa. She then began a long career at Skiff Medical Center in Newton, retiring from there in 2001.
But Ford was not ready to totally walk away from the Army. She took part in the Inactive Ready Reserves (IRR) from 1969-1975. After a five-year break when she was raising her children and working full-time at Skiff, Ford decided to go back into the Army Nurse Corps Active Reserves at Fort Des Moines as a nursing supervisor with the rank of Captain. Her job as a nurse manager on the surgical floor at Skiff often required her to work weekends, and her job at Fort Des Moines required her to take part in drill weekends once a month, as well as two-week long annual military training exercises. Ford said that during her time in the Reserves, she had a very supportive family, especially her mother who helped take care of her grandchildren when Ford was away from home. “I couldn’t have done what I did without the support of my family,” Ford recalls. She retired from the Reserves after almost 30 years of service as Chief Nurse in 2004 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, three years after her retirement from Skiff.
Even though she is officially retired in both civilian and military life, Ford has still been actively involved in serving, but this time as a veteran. Since 1998, she has been a commissioner on the Jasper County Veterans Commission, which has five volunteer members representing all branches of the service and various war eras, appointed by the Jasper County Board of Supervisors. This year marks Ford’s 20th year of serving on the commission, which she currently chairs. The commission meets once a month and
performs a variety of duties, including providing oversight to Jasper County Veterans Affairs Director Kurt Jackson and his assistant Keith Thorpe, as well as approving Jackson’s monthly budget and examining paperwork for Jasper County veterans requesting admission to the Iowa Veterans Home, commonly known as the “Soldiers Home,” in Marshalltown. Ford was also elected and served from 2013-2016 as the first female Commander of the American Legion Post 111 in Newton.
Ford has been involved as a “guardian” for three Jasper County Freedom Flights flying veterans to a day tour of Washington, D.C. She wore a red shirt to distinguish her from the veterans on the trip wearing yellow shirts, assisting wherever she was needed.
Ford said all of the money raised to support the Freedom Flights has come from a grassroots effort, and no corporate dollars were solicited for these events. On the third Freedom Flight in 2013, she was reminded by the organizer of the Jasper County Freedom Flights, Doug Bishop, that Ford served in two roles on this flight, both as a “red shirt” and as a Vietnam veteran. For this Freedom Flight, family members of the veterans were asked ahead of time to write letters to their veteran so the veterans could take part in “Mail Call,” a very touching moment for many of the veterans on that flight, reminiscent of the importance of receiving news from family and friends while they were actively serving far away from home. Ford’s son wrote her a letter, which she now keeps in a safe. It contains the sentence, “I’m proud to tell people my mom wears combat boots.”
Bishop also arranged a surprise for Ford and her son on Nov. 9, 2017, during a trip to Washington, D.C., the primary purpose of which was to attend a Vietnam War Memorial ceremony. While visiting the capital, Ford assumed she was simply going to look inside the office of U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, but soon found she herself was instead a guest of honor. Sen. Ernst read a tribute honoring Ford for her life’s dedication to service and her country.
This tribute, which was so deeply moving for Ford and her son, had been read into the Congressional Record on Nov. 6. Ford and Bishop also were in attendance at the Wall (as the Vietnam War Memorial is also known) during the Washington trip and placed a wreath there on behalf of the Jasper County Vietnam Veterans group, also meeting fellow Vietnam veterans and family members of several people whose names appear on the Wall.
As Lt. Col. Marta Ford continues to serve as a veteran, she reminds us that at least 22 veterans commit suicide each day, something that is uniquely evident to her with her dual background in nursing and the military. She is pleased to see how the country’s general attitude toward veterans has evolved over the years, which is much different today than during the era of the Vietnam War. Today, appreciation for our country’s veterans exists even down to the level of Jasper County, with its Veterans Commission, with Ford at the helm. “… My mom wears combat boots.” Indeed.