Veterinarians officially and unofficially have been a part of the Army since its inception. Reliance on animals for transportation, nutrition, and commerce were essential to early army operations and logistics. While there were farriers and other “horse tenders” attached to the American Army from the time of the Revolutionary War, medical expertise and official recognition did not occur until much later.
Veterinary medicine, similar to other scientific disciplines in the United States slowly made gains during the 19th Century.
A few civilian veterinarians were hired to support the Army during the War with Mexico (1846-1848). Later, the rank of veterinary sergeant existed briefly at the beginning of the Civil War in order to support some cavalry regiments, but the position was dropped in 1862. In 1863 each regiment of cavalry was authorized a regimental veterinary surgeon with the rank commensurate of a regimental sergeant major. Experience and field observation often overrode the lack of fixed standards in veterinary care; hence there were very few graduate veterinarians. To supplement the need for assistance civilian veterinarians were again hired, this time in greater numbers.
After the Civil War the smaller army still had mobility requirements and increased standards of its veterinary care. Existing cavalry regiments (6) were still authorized one veterinary surgeon and newly formed cavalry regiments (4) were authorized two veterinary surgeons, one of which would be designated the “Senior Veterinary Surgeon”. Army General Orders of 1879, later included in Army Regulations of 1881 provided that all appointed veterinary surgeons “be graduates of established and reputable veterinary schools or colleges.” Congressional legislation in 1899 improved the status
of senior veterinarians in the cavalry regiments, when they were accorded rank between cadet and second lieutenant.
The turn of the 20th Century in “Progressive Era” America and a desire to improve quality of life led
An investigation of “embalmed meats” at the close of the Spanish-American War (1898) mirrored the spirit of the time (The Jungle, foundation of the FDA) and established the use of Army veterinarians for food inspection.
From 1901 to 1906 a handful of veterinarians were detailed from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the Subsistence Department of the Army for meat inspection. Later, post commanders were able to utilize veterinarians to inspect locally purchased beef.
Even before the build-up of the American Army for World War I, early planners saw the wisdom of increasing the size and permanency of the Army Veterinary Service. On 3 June 1916 the National Defense Act in Section 16, specified the appointment, duties, and implementation of veterinarians in the Army. This act also provided for an official Veterinary Corps with officer rank and a promotion structure.
Due to the reliance on animal transportation, many times over newer mechanical conveyances, the U.S. Army veterinarian gained status within the American Expeditionary Force. Similarly their efforts in “remounting” and treating horses and mules assisted the war effort in Europe, where animal stocks had been greatly depleted.
The veterinarians would also begin a mission magnified in later years as they enhanced of camp conditions through better sanitation.
While World War I may have been the high-point for animal transportation care, World War II served as the standard for food inspection on a massive scale. Although animal care was provided for military working dogs, horses, and mules; food inspection served as 90% of veterinarian’s job during WWII. To supply the enormous Army, 142 billion pounds aggregate of meat and dairy products were inspected from 1940 through 1945. Complimenting this task were 11 labs in the United States and 23 units or labs overseas.
Within weeks of the invasion of South Korea by North Korea in June of 1950 Veterinary Service Units arrived to provide support. Their duties consisted largely of food inspection and also provided animal care for local livestock and military working dogs. In some cases the “fluid” battlefield found Army Veterinarians on the move and frequently in harm’s way.
In the 1950s the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Agricultural Research Service working with a U.S. Army medical unit with suitable x-ray equipment and Veterinary personnel, assisted in the trial irradiation and ultimately eradication of screw worms.* (Cochliomyia hominivorax) The fly larvae, once a scourge to livestock and some humans in the Americas, enters its host through open wounds and then consumes portions of the host’s flesh.
During the Vietnam War, U.S. Army veterinarians worked with the local populace to help curb a rabies epidemic within the country. Other challenges included not only food procurement, but also ice as well. Increasing numbers of military working dogs and mascots caused another shift in veterinary care as several small animal clinics and dispensary detachments were established for U.S. Forces in Vietnam.
More recently Army Veterinarians have been integral to military efforts in Afghanistan by maintaining animal health in an agrarian society. Similarly, the numbers of military working dogs in theater have increased as have certain threats such as rabies. Food safety also remains a constant task of importance. Continuous testing, service in the field, and research allow the Veterinary Corps to preserve public and animal health.
Image: Traveller Skeleton