Army Veterinary Corps celebrates 90th anniversary

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The U.S. Army Veterinary Corps observed its 90th anniversary June 2 at the Army Medical Department Museum of Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. The event was hosted by the chief of the Army Veterinary Corps, Brig. Gen. Michael Cates, and included presentations by seven former Veterinary Corps chiefs, an unveiling of a commemorative print, and a reception.

The former Veterinary Corps chiefs were Brig. Gen. (Retired) Charles Elia, Brig. Gen. (Retired) Robert Jorgensen, Brig. Gen. (Retired) Thomas Murnane, Brig. Gen. (Retired) Frank Ramsey, Col. (Retired) Paul Barrows, Col. (Retired) Clifford Johnson, and Col. John Fournier.

The Veterinary Corps was formally established by an act of Congress June 3, 1916. However, recognition of the need for veterinary expertise had been evolving since 1776 when Gen. Washington directed that a "regiment of horses with a farrier" be raised. Farriers were not veterinarians but often treated horses for many ailments.

During the Civil War, War Department general orders provided each cavalry regiment with a veterinary surgeon with the rank of regimental sergeant-major and pay of $75 a month. Further recognition of the need for veterinarians evolved after the war concluded. In 1875, Congress authorized medicines and dressings for horses used in the artillery but did not authorize veterinarians, in contrast with their cavalry counterparts. Congress passed a resolution in 1879 requiring that all applicants for veterinary positions with the cavalry be graduates of a recognized veterinary college.

In the 1890s, veterinarians were being sought to inspect meat, poultry, and dairy products destined for frontier posts. A strong academic background in microbiology, epidemiology, pathology, and public health has always made veterinarians ideally suited for a role in ensuring wholesomeness of food.

The Spanish-American War was pivotal in the evolutionary pathway leading to establishment of the Veterinary Corps. The Army had inadequately prepared for its role in maintaining the health of its animals and its soldiers prior to the war. The infamous "embalmed beef" scandal, when claims were made that some beef had such a foul odor that it was thought to be embalmed, incorrectly absorbed blame for the loss of numerous American lives. In actuality, there was a lack of adequate quality assurance factors that led directly to the loss of thousands of American lives and rendered even greater numbers of soldiers ineffective. The country began demanding that something be done to preclude such catastrophes in the future.

The AVMA and numerous individuals began actively supporting legislation directed toward establishment of an Army Veterinary Corps. Finally, as a result of passage of the National Defense Act of June 3, 1916, commissioning of veterinary officers became a reality and the Army surgeon general began the work of organizing this new corps within the Regular Army. When war was declared in April 1917, there were 57 veterinarians working for the Army, primarily in the area of equine surgery and medicine. Within 18 months, the newly established corps grew to 2,313 officers.

Participation of the Veterinary Corps in all of this nation's conflicts since World War I has been an essential element in the maintenance of the health and well-being of animals and soldiers. The highly technical education obtained by veterinarians has continued to prepare them for their changing mission requirements for the past 90 years.

Following the establishment of the Air Force Veterinary Corps in 1949, the Army shared military veterinary responsibilities with its sister service. In 1979, however, Congress directed changes to the Department of Defense veterinary missions. Effective March 31, 1980, the Air Force Veterinary Corps was disestablished, and the Army became the executive agent for all DoD veterinary services.

The U.S. Army Veterinary Corps continues to substantially impact current armed forces operations. Veterinary unit commanders and their personnel are critical in effecting remarkably low rates of foodborne illness. This is in great measure a result of veterinary inspection of subsistence in the United States and the approval of safe food sources around the world. Army Veterinary Corps veterinarians ensure the health of military working dogs and assist with host nation-related animal emergencies. They are also woven into the fabric of homeland security, filling key roles regarding issues in chemical and biological defense.

At home, military veterinary supervision of operational ration assembly plants, supply and distribution points, ports of debarkation, and other types of subsistence operations are critical to ensuring safe, wholesome food for U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and their family members. The large segment of Veterinary Corps members involved in medical research and development missions contributes immeasurably to the overall military effort. Vaccine, antitoxin, and antidote development, directed toward the protection of military personnel, continues to be heavily reliant on military veterinary expertise.

Today, the Army Veterinary Corps, composed of more than 700 veterinarians in the active and Army Reserve, concludes 90 years of historic achievements about which it can be tremendously proud. Accomplishing its broad functions of food safety and defense, animal care, veterinary public health, and research and development will continue to be essential as long as the need for military forces remains.