In its drive to promote healthy pregnancy, the March of Dimes considers every avenue of outreach. This has included cordial ties with U.S. Armed Forces in order to support military families. Historically, our earliest years coincided with the global catastrophe of World War II when our founder – President Franklin D. Roosevelt – was Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. In that troubled time, our military ties were many and various. An early research grant went to Drs. John Paul and Albert Sabin to find out why American GIs in Egypt contracted polio when native populations seemed immune to the disease. The Foundation created a fund-raising unit that coordinated its annual “March of Dimes” campaigns with all branches of the military. Our Armed Forces Division was so popular that top brass such as Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Admiral Chester Nimitz wrote enthusiastic public messages of support for our fight against polio.
After the war, the most conspicuous military program was the Military Air Transport Service (MATS). MATS was a standing agreement of the March of Dimes with the U.S. Air Force to airlift iron lung respirators to epidemic areas and even individuals with paralytic polio to hospitals for special care. In one case, MATS cargo aircraft shipped iron lungs to a polio epidemic in Japan in 1961. With the advent of the Salk polio vaccine developed with March of Dimes funds, the Foundation ensured that military personnel were protected from the polio virus. Military personnel and their families from the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard dispensary to the U.S. Army Hospital at West Point participated in March of Dimes polio vaccination programs.
When the March of Dimes turned toward birth defects prevention in the 1960s, our involvement with the military also turned in a new direction. We then maintained on staff an official liaison to the military as we broadened our approach to birth defects by focusing on all the determinants of healthy pregnancy. And, in our examination of the genetic causes of birth defects, we provided advice to Viet Nam era veteran groups about medical and genetic counseling for victims of Agent Orange. Our relationship to the Veterans of Foreign Wars has been mutually supportive for decades, and several March of Dimes national ambassadors have been members of military families. One of these, Cody Groce, was very proud to appear with Gen. Colin Powell at our National Youth Leadership Conference in Washington, DC in 1998. Our most recent effort in support of military families has been our involvement in Operation Shower.
In the darkest days of World War II, FDR offered these words to characterize his understanding of the March of Dimes mission: “Nothing is closer to my heart than the health of our boys and girls and young men and young women. It is one of the front lines of national defense.” With this impetus, the March of Dimes went on to defeat polio and launch a new mission against birth defects and prematurity. FDR’s original sentiment bears close resemblance to our passionate quest for “stronger, healthier babies” today.
Note on photo: Sailors in formation spell out “March of Dimes” on board aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1962