AUBURN — Jean Keirstead Hutchinson smiled at the flowers, the gift blanket, the pins and the medal. But the 91-year-old veteran of World War II's Battle of the Bulge felt it was all too much fuss Thursday.
"I was one of a million," she whispered.
Not so. Rather, she was part of a team who made it possible for later generations of military nurses to be respected for their skill and honored for their bravery.
"Without you, I wouldn't be here," said Capt. Lisa Buckles, a critical care nurse with the Army Medical Recruiting Station in Boston. Between 2009 and 2010, Buckles served in Mosul, Iraq.
"She was one of a million who allowed us nurses to continue serving," the captain said.
It's a bit of history that too few people know, Buckles said.
To her own family, Hutchinson talked little of the war. But last year, a relative discovered a post-war news story about her that ran in the Lewiston Daily Sun.
The story quoted a letter that young Jean Keirstead sent to her parents in Auburn. Hutchinson was just 23 when she and her unit, the 221st General Hospital Unit, was billeted in a former French Calvary school near the Ardennes mountains.
In the letter, she described her makeshift hospital, which created wards in the school's former stables. She also described her closeness to the fighting, which would be the last major battle of the war in Europe, spreading across France, Belgium and Luxembourg.
"When we first arrived here, we were only a few miles from the front and, of course, were not allowed out alone or without a group and several officers," she wrote. "A strict blackout was observed, and for hours, planes roared overhead and vehicles rolled by on the highways."
The discovery of the old news story reawakened the family's interest in Hutchinson's war record. They recalled bits of stories Hutchinson had told about treating both American G.I.s and German P.O.W.s, some of whom were in their early teens.
"She called all the soldiers she treated 'her boys,'" said Nancy Rogers, one of Hutchinson's daughters.
Interest in her record piqued higher this summer when Hutchinson was in the hospital, being treated for pneumonia.
During a conversation with a nurse, she surprised her family by reciting the Nightingale Pledge (once a standard part of a nursing education). Among its promises, a nurse pledges to "do all in my power to maintain and elevate the standard of my profession."
When her son-in-law, Wayne Walshans, related the story to a veteran's official near his home in Pennsylvania, calls were made. The effort quickly began to honor the frail nurse from Auburn.
Buckles drove up from Boston and, in a 10-minute-long living room ceremony, she presented Hutchinson with the Nurse Corps insignia, an honorable service pin and her World War II European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with a battle star.
She also gave her a "wounded warrior blanket," just like those given to injured soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
"I can't believe it," Hutchinson said, stroking the blanket. "It's gorgeous."