Anita Bloom Ornoff – PVA’s First Woman Member

May 30, 1921 – February 13, 2008

By Rachel Y. Krishnan

Celebrating America’s military women with their indomitable spirit and mental tenacity, we honor the life and accomplishments of a pioneer woman in the service of her country. Anita Bloom was Paralyzed Veterans of America’s (PVA) first female veteran member. Fiercely independent, coupled with a slightly defiant, rebellious nature, she faced more than her share of hardships. Through all her adversities, she kept an optimistic attitude, boundless determination and fortitude.

A woman with short, dark hair is sitting and smiling at the camera. She is wearing a patterned sleeveless dress and appears relaxed, leaning back slightly. The background shows a fireplace and part of a window. The image is in black and white.Anita Bloom grew up in Suffern, NY, a small town 30 miles north of NYC. A natural leader in high school, she was a yearbook class editor, cheerleader, band and orchestra member. She graduated in 1938, during the height of the Depression, when it wasn’t easy for a young Jewish woman to find work. But by the age of 19 she held a supervisory sales position in a department store, earning a good salary. As World War II heated up, Anita was determined somehow to support the war effort. She worried about her extended family living in Germany, and she had nightmares about Hitler. Joining the USO, she taught young soldiers how to dance.

After the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress signed a compromise bill (May 1942) creating the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp (WAAC). This allowed women to fill Army office and clerical jobs, but did not grant its members military status. The initial goal of 25,000 women recruits was surpassed within six months, so the program was expanded.  One day late in 1942, Anita saw a uniformed WAAC, and suddenly she knew her calling. She chose to leave her well-paying job for a path less traveled. Without consulting her parents, Anita enlisted in the WAAC. Her official acceptance letter was dated January 8, 1943. The admitting Lieutenant was certain Anita was Officer’s Candidate School (OCS) material.

The WAAC program remained a military success. After much debate, on July 3, 1943, Congress approved the conversion of WAAC into the regular Army, creating the Women’s Army Corp (WAC), equalizing an array of GI benefits and protections. This date will play significantly in Anita’s life.

Anita Bloom began WAAC basic training on January 28, 1943. The first month was at Fort Oglethorpe, GA, an Army post that housed 10,000 soldiers waiting to depart for the war. Here, she became platoon leader of Company B, 21st Regiment.  On March 3 she began course work at the first WAAC training school in the nation, Stephen F. Austin College, in Nacogdoches, TX. During basic training, she encountered anti-Semitism, as well as criticism from people reacting adversely to women in uniform. Anita remained upbeat and excited about her future. She loved the spirit and comradeship, was already planning OCS after graduation, and had volunteered for overseas duty. But Anita’s life was about to change drastically.

Two weeks after her arrival in Texas, Anita developed an infection on her right thumb. Improperly treated by WAAC and medical staff, the infection worsened. For the next three weeks, Anita continued to attend class, determined to graduate. She repeatedly sought medical attention, but her decline progressed. Just a day before graduation, she became unable to walk and was transported to a local hospital, then to an Army hospital. The infection had spread to her spinal cord, leading to surgery and a spinal-cord injury (SCI) in her thoracic region. Keep in mind that Penicillin, which could increase the chance of surviving a SCI, would only become available in the US two years later (March 1945).

Late in May 1943, after two months in the Texas Army hospital, Anita received an honorable, albeit forced, discharge. She was devastated, having expected to recover and rejoin her Company. She was transferred by train, on a stretcher, to the Bronx Veterans Hospital. She forced herself to concentrate on the positive aspects of moving closer to home.

Her stay at the Bronx VA was difficult at first, as she adjusted to living with her paralysis. An eminent neurosurgeon convinced her that she was too young to throw in the towel. As the only female veteran in the hospital with a SCI, the VA had to adjust to her as well. For example, she was determined to live catheter-free. Her first major win in her battle with the VA was to transfer to a toilet and successfully empty her bladder. Another VA fight she won was obtaining permission to visit the male SCI ward. She argued that they had much to learn from each other, particularly regarding bowel and bladder issues. Soon she was treated like one of the guys, and she developed connections with some of the patients that would later benefit her through PVA.

Anita discovered that her WAAC records indicated she was off duty when she became paralyzed, and therefore not eligible for compensation from the US Employees’ Compensation Commission. The Jewish Welfare Board helped her correct the files, winning another battle.

In the spring of 1944, Anita became one of the first paralyzed women veterans to learn to walk using metal braces and crutches. She was also the first woman veteran at the Bronx VA hospital to test a newly patented, collapsible metal wheelchair, replacing the more cumbersome wooden chair. As the collapsible wheelchair easily fit into a car, it opened doors to many invitations for Anita and the male SCI patients. In October, 1944, she was part of a select group taken to Madison Square Garden to demonstrate to medical professionals the proper way to crutch walk and other rehabilitation techniques. She was also the first women veteran to learn how to drive using hand controls, giving her a tremendous sense of independence and freedom.

After getting her driver’s license, she applied to the VA for the car allotment which all service connected SCI veterans were entitled to. Receiving the same medical benefits in a VA hospital as the male SCI veterans, she was shocked to learn that because she did not serve in the army, she was not entitled to any GI benefits. She had been discharged only three months before the WAAC organization became WAC and a regular part of the army. Anita was determined to find a way to become a full-fledged veteran, setting off a ten-year battle with the US political system.

Anita realized that her battle for physical independence was hers and hers alone. She worked hard in PT, relearned how to swim, and jumped at an opportunity to attend a newly formed rehabilitation school where the founder led her to believe she would walk again within months. On February 1, 1947, after a 3 ½ year stay, she left the Bronx VA for the rehabilitation school, full of hope, excitement and determination. But after months of little progress, Anita learned she was being exploited to attract other VA SCI patients and the income they would bring. The most positive takeaway from that eleven-month “school” experience was meeting the physical therapist whom she would marry almost 6 years later. He helped her gain enough strength and confidence to apply for college at NYU and to live independently in the city.

Not yet qualifying for the GI Bill, finances dampened Anita’s desire to attend college. She had only the small $141 per month pension she had fought for earlier. While at the VA hospital, she was offered jobs in a clock factory and as a demonstrator, traveling to every VA facility to show SCI patients how to take care of themselves. But this meant she would always live in a veteran’s hospital. She wanted more in life, that a college education could provide. NYU was not wheelchair accessible, so it took some persuasion even to gain admittance. She sought and received a small scholarship from the National Council of Jewish Women and, to scrape by, she worked part time as switchboard operator in the building where she lived. After 3 ½ years at NYU, she transferred to Hunter College for specialized courses in speech therapy. Later, she earned a BA in Psychology from Loyola College in Baltimore, MD. A woman with short, light-colored hair and large glasses smiles at the camera while seated at a desk. She is wearing a dark jacket and light-colored blouse. In the background, there appears to be office equipment, including a typewriter or printer.

Anita was an active civic leader. She was a volunteer 4-H Club leader and a Woman’s Club president. She attended the NYC SCI veteran demonstrations, emphasizing the need for SCI vets to receive funding for specially constructed housing, the current day SHA and SAH VA grants. In 1949, the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans’ Association (now Paralyzed Veterans of America) granted her membership, recognizing her as a veteran.

Anita was persistent in her fight to gain GI benefits. She contacted Senators, members of Congress, journalists, and lawyers until, in her words, “I was blue in the face.” Over the next six years, a number of congressional bills were written and rejected. She even wrote directly to General Dwight Eisenhower, then Army Chief of Staff, Eleanor Roosevelt, President Truman, and again to Eisenhower after he became president. She spoke before the House Judiciary sub-committee May 4, 1949, along with two champions from PVA. She was fighting for an increase of $219/month, an allotment for a hand-controlled automobile, up to $10,000 for a specially constructed home, and school benefits. Family members asked her to give up on her fight. She said, “Deep in my heart I knew I would never, ever give up on my country’s obligation to those of us who volunteered when our country needed us.”

In mid-June 1954, PVA president Robert Moss made Anita aware of a major bill being lobbied by the American Legion giving all veterans a pension increase. He pushed Anita to persuade senators to attach her bill, now HR 8041, as a rider. August 22, 1954, 11 ½ years after Anita sustained a SCI, President Eisenhower signed her bill, and the US Government finally recognized her as a service-connected, spinal cord veteran.

Anita lived to almost 87, using a wheelchair for more than 65 years. She was able to lead a full family life, married thrice, widowed twice, and as step-mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Her hope was that the challenges she faced and overcame will inspire others, especially young women and men, to overcome adversity and “go forward in life with a positive attitude to conquer any misfortune.”

We honor her courage, inner strength and positive attitude.