Chapter 3 Excerpt: “Commemoration Through Rehabilitation: The World War Reconstruction Aides Association

This excerpt from Allison S. Finkelstein’s new book, Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials: How American Women Commemorated the Great War, 1917-1945, comes from Chapter 3. Titled “Commemoration Through Rehabilitation: The World War Reconstruction Aides Association,” this chapter examines the postwar challenges faced by the Reconstruction Aides—women who served the military as physical and occupational therapists during and after World War One. Despite their pioneering wartime service, they lacked official veteran status and saw the memory of their wartime contributions fade during their lifetime. 

A Reconstruction Aide assisting wounded soldiers with occupational therapy at Walter Reed, ca. 1917-1919. Library of Congress.

In section 17 of Arlington National Cemetery, not far from the Argonne Cross memorial, rests the grave of Henry A. Pittman. The front of Henry’s grave identifies his service as a private in the Sixteenth Infantry during World War One. The back of his grave includes an inscription for his wife, buried with him. That inscription identifies her as only “His wife Rachel R. Sep 12 1893 Nov 2 1974.” Nothing in his wife’s inscription indicates that she too served in the war as a uniformed Reconstruction Aide and became yet another unrecognized female veteran.

Rachel Pittman, known during the war by her maiden name, Rachel Ring, served as a physical therapist at Walter Reed Army Hospital from August 1918 to July 1920. She subsequently worked for the US Public Health Service and Veterans Administration hospitals until she resigned from full-time employment the day before her wedding. To the casual observer, Rachel looks like any other wife buried with her husband and memorialized on the back of his headstone, as is customary at military cemeteries in the US. Rachel’s own story of military service remains hidden on this headstone, unrecognized by the government in death just as she was unrecognized in life. Did the Pittmans choose to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery so that they could both be buried together in a way that recognized their military service? Or was this choice based only on Henry’s service in the war? The full story may never be known.