Soldier receiving a shot from a female medical professional

Nursing in the Military: Serving Your Country and Providing Care

The Vital Role of Nurses in the Military Healthcare System.

Soldier receiving a shot from a female medical professional

Nurses in the military healthcare system play a vital and multifaceted role in ensuring the health and well-being of service members, veterans, and their families. They are the linchpin of the military medical team, providing frontline care, managing medical facilities, offering preventive services, and administering crucial treatments during deployments and operations. Their expertise is pivotal in triaging injuries, stabilizing patients, and facilitating smooth transitions from the battlefield to rehabilitation. Additionally, military nurses engage in various healthcare domains, including mental health, primary care, surgical support, and public health initiatives, showcasing the breadth and depth of their contributions to the armed forces’ overall health infrastructure.

What sets military nursing apart is the unique opportunity it offers to healthcare professionals—a chance to combine their calling to serve individuals in need of medical care with the honor and duty of serving their country. Military nurses exemplify resilience, adaptability, and compassion, navigating challenging and often hostile environments to deliver life-saving care. Their dedication extends beyond borders, with humanitarian missions allowing them to impact lives globally. This dual commitment is a testament to their unwavering sense of duty, where they stand at the intersection of healthcare provision, national service, and the humanitarian ethos, embodying the very essence of selflessness and healing in the face of adversity.

This article illuminates the diverse roles held by these healthcare professionals, outlines the path to becoming a military nurse, provides insights into their daily routines, and examines the advantages and hurdles of this specialized field. Overall, this article encourages aspiring nurses to consider this fulfilling career, emphasizing the honor and dedication exemplified by military nurses in their service to the nation.

What is a Military Nurse?

Military nurses occupy a distinct and pivotal role that blends the demands of healthcare provision with the responsibilities inherent in the armed forces. Their unique position lies at the intersection of the healthcare field and the armed forces, making them essential healthcare professionals and crucial contributors to national defense. They are tasked with providing comprehensive medical care to active-duty service members, veterans, and their families, ensuring their well-being in various circumstances and settings.

In delivering healthcare to active-duty service members, veterans, and their families, military nurses serve a critical function by administering prompt and proficient medical attention. They play a central role in emergency and trauma care, preventive healthcare, health education, mental health support, and rehabilitation. This vital care is delivered across diverse settings, from the chaos of combat zones in field hospitals, where quick and accurate decisions are paramount, to the structure and organization of military medical centers during times of peace, where routine healthcare and specialized treatments are provided. Their multifaceted responsibilities encompass managing healthcare facilities, coordinating medical logistics, and participating in disaster relief efforts, showcasing their versatility and adaptability.

Beyond their roles as healthcare providers, military nurses are integral to national security and public health. They contribute to maintaining a healthy and capable military force, enhancing the readiness and operational effectiveness of the armed forces. Their efforts extend to managing and responding to public health crises, pandemics, and natural disasters, showcasing the broader impact of their expertise and experience. This multifaceted nature of their work highlights the significance of military nurses in both healthcare and national defense, underscoring their pivotal role in safeguarding the health and security of the nation and its citizens.

What Does a Military Nurse Do?

Military nurses fulfill a spectrum of crucial roles and responsibilities within the healthcare system of the armed forces, playing an essential part in providing healthcare to service members, veterans, and their families. Their roles extend across diverse scenarios and environments, showcasing their adaptability and dedication to healthcare delivery in challenging settings. From combat zones to military bases and humanitarian missions, military nurses are called upon to exhibit their skills and expertise in various capacities.

Combat zones

In combat zones, military nurses operate in high-stress, life-or-death situations, where immediate and efficient medical care is paramount. They provide trauma care, treating severe injuries sustained in combat. This may involve administering initial emergency treatments, stabilizing patients, and preparing them for evacuation to higher-level care facilities. Military nurses are also responsible for managing critical cases, ensuring continuous monitoring and appropriate interventions to maximize chances of survival. Their skills are critical in resuscitation, pain management, wound care, and infection control.

Soldier in camo receiving a shot from a medical professional

Military bases

On military bases, military nurses function within a structured healthcare system, providing primary healthcare, routine medical services, and preventive care to service members and their families. They play a central role in health promotion, education, and disease prevention programs. They also contribute to family support services, including maternal and child health, maintaining the overall health and well-being of military communities.

Humanitarian missions

In humanitarian missions, military nurses extend their expertise to populations in need beyond the armed forces. They participate in disaster relief efforts, offering medical assistance to communities affected by natural disasters, conflict, or other emergencies. Their role here encompasses providing essential healthcare, disease control, vaccinations, and health education, aligning with the broader humanitarian goals of alleviating suffering and supporting those in crisis.

Surgical teams

Moreover, military nurses play a critical role in surgical teams, assisting in various surgical procedures. They may serve as perioperative nurses, providing pre-operative and post-operative care to patients. Their responsibilities include preparing patients for surgery, monitoring vital signs during the procedure, and aiding in the patient’s recovery afterward. This multidimensional involvement showcases the versatility and comprehensive skill set that military nurses possess, making them indispensable components of the armed forces healthcare system.

The Different Roles for Military Nurses

Military nurses have a broad range of roles and specialties within the armed forces’ healthcare system, reflecting the diverse healthcare needs of service members and their families. Some of the key specialties include critical care, trauma care, mental health, public health, and more.

  • Critical Care Nursing: Critical care nurses in the military are responsible for monitoring and caring for patients with life-threatening conditions. They work in intensive care units (ICUs), providing specialized care to stabilize and support critically ill or injured patients.
  • Trauma Nursing: Trauma nurses play a crucial role in combat zones and military medical facilities, providing immediate care to patients with severe injuries resulting from accidents or combat. They focus on stabilizing patients and preventing further harm until they can receive definitive care.
  • Mental Health Nursing: Mental health nurses within the military address the unique psychological challenges that service members may face, such as combat stress, PTSD, depression, and anxiety. They provide counseling, therapy, and support to enhance the mental well-being of service members and their families.
  • Public Health Nursing: Public health nurses in the military work on preventive healthcare initiatives and population health. They are involved in health education, disease prevention, vaccination campaigns, community health assessments, and promoting healthy lifestyle choices.

Military nurses can serve in various branches of the armed forces, including the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard, each with its unique focus and mission. The Army Nurse Corps provides nursing care to soldiers and their families. Army nurses are deployed worldwide, from combat zones to humanitarian missions, providing critical medical support. Navy nurses work aboard naval vessels, in naval hospitals, and with Marine Corps units. They provide healthcare to Navy and Marine Corps personnel, both at sea and on land. Air Force nurses work to provide healthcare to Air Force personnel and their families, both in peacetime and in deployed settings. They often operate in air bases and support aeromedical evacuations. Lastly, the Coast Guard employs nurses to provide healthcare to Coast Guard members and, in certain situations, to support civilian communities in need of medical assistance, particularly in disaster relief scenarios.

Medical Assistant with a clipboard at a clinic

Real-life examples of military nursing professionals include individuals like Florence Blanchfield, a veteran of both World Wars, and although her rank and responsibility was that of a full-bird Colonel, she did not have a commission in the regular Army. It was her mission to get this full rank for the women serving in the service, ensuring the passage of the 1947 Army-Navy Nurses Act. There was also pioneer Hazel Johnson-Brown. As a black woman and nurse, educator, and Army commander, Hazel Johnson-Brown dealt with prejudice and adversity throughout her life and career. In 1979, she became the first Black female general and the first Black chief of the United States Army Nursing Corps. Hazel was a true leader with an undeniable passion for medicine and education. Other real-life examples include individuals like retired Major General Barbara R. Holcomb, a former Chief of the Army Nurse Corps, who led the transformation of Army nursing during her tenure. Brigadier General Linda J. Stierle, an Air Force Executive Nurse Leader, significantly contributed to expanding opportunities for military nurses to lead interdisciplinary teams, command medical treatment facilities, advance medical readiness and nursing practice, and grow nursing as a science.

How to Become a Military Nurse

Becoming a military nurse involves a specific pathway that combines the required educational and military training and commissioning as an officer. Here’s an outline of the steps to become a military nurse:

  1. Educational Requirements: First, one must earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited nursing program. Some specialized roles or higher-ranking positions may require a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree.
  2. Obtain Licensure and Gain Clinical Experience: After completing a nursing program, aspiring military nurses need to pass the NCLEX-RN (National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses) to obtain a nursing license in their respective state.
  3. Gain work experience or choose to enlist: Once you’ve earned your degree and license, you can choose to gain experience as a civilian RN, and then join the military as a commissioned officer. You can also opt to enlist as a new nurse.
  4. Research and Choose a Military Branch: Research the different branches of the military (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard) and determine which aligns with your goals, preferences, and desired area of service.
  5. Application Process: The application process to become a military nurse varies slightly depending on the branch of service.
    • Enlisting and Attending Basic Training: In some cases, individuals may choose to enlist directly in the military and attend basic training before applying for nursing positions. Afterward, they can apply for programs that lead to becoming a military nurse.
    • Officer Candidate School (OCS): For those who already possess a BSN or higher, Officer Candidate School (OCS) is a common route. Applicants must meet specific requirements and complete OCS, where they receive training and education to become a commissioned officer.
    • Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC): Some aspiring military nurses choose to participate in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) while pursuing their BSN. ROTC offers scholarships and stipends, and upon graduation, participants are commissioned as officers in their chosen military branch.
  6. Join the Nurse Corps and Complete Basic Officer Training: Once accepted into the military nursing program, individuals will be commissioned into the Nurse Corps and undergo basic officer training specific to their branch of service.
  7. Specialized Training and Assignments: After completing basic officer training, military nurses undergo specialized training relevant to their assigned role, such as critical care, trauma, mental health, or public health.
  8. Continuing Education and Advancement: Military nurses are encouraged to pursue advanced degrees and certifications to enhance their skills and advance in their careers within the military healthcare system.

Soldier in an army shirt speaking with a nurse at a table

A Day in the Life of a Military Nurse

The daily life of a military nurse is dynamic and demanding, often involving a combination of patient care, administrative duties, training, and professional development. Military nurses may find themselves providing direct patient care in hospitals, clinics, or field units, focusing on various healthcare needs, from routine check-ups to critical trauma care. They could also be involved in training exercises, disaster response drills, or participating in readiness training to ensure they are prepared for deployments and emergencies.

Administratively, military nurses may be responsible for managing healthcare facilities, coordinating medical logistics, supervising personnel, and overseeing the execution of healthcare policies. Professional development is a significant aspect, involving ongoing education, training on advanced medical equipment and technologies, and staying current with the latest advancements in healthcare practices. In addition, military nurses have abundant opportunities for travel, both domestically and internationally. Domestic travel can involve assignments in different states or regions, where they can be stationed at military bases, veterans’ hospitals, or healthcare facilities affiliated with the armed forces. International travel occurs during deployments, humanitarian missions, or exercises, providing an opportunity to work in diverse cultures and healthcare systems, and contribute to global health efforts.

Arianna (Ari) Flowers serves as an Emergency/Trauma Nurse for the United States Army. She has been in the military for 7 years and held a variety of roles and responsibilities. Currently, she is stationed overseas in Korea in a Forward Surgical Resuscitative Detachment. In this YouTube interview, Ari Flowers walks through a typical day in her role as a military nurse, detailing the different roles a military nurse plays and the balance between nursing and military life.

U.S. Army Major Abigail Cooper, who is Walter Reed’s nursing service chief, understands the weight of expectations that come with working at the world’s most revered military hospital. “My days are long, but my commitment runs deep,” explained Cooper. On any given day, she oversees the morning change of shift huddle, conducts rounds to discuss plans of care for each patient, and attends a mix of administrative meetings. “I’ve always enjoyed being immersed in the behind-the-scenes details that make a command successful,” volunteered Cooper. Whether she’s writing commendations or reviewing schedules, Cooper makes a point of checking in each day with the assistant service chief and the non-commissioned officer in charge to have a “touchpoint to discuss the next day’s plan.”

These stories reflect the diverse experiences and impactful roles that military nurses undertake in their daily service. From providing critical care in challenging environments to experiencing the rewards of making a difference in the lives of those they serve, military nursing offers a fulfilling and dynamic career path.

Benefits and Challenges of Military Nursing

Advantages of a Career in Military Nursing

There are numerous benefits to a career in military nursing. Military nurses enjoy competitive salaries, allowances, and comprehensive benefits packages, including healthcare, retirement plans, and access to educational benefits such as tuition assistance and loan repayment programs. These financial incentives contribute to a stable and satisfying career. Military nursing offers a high level of job security, as healthcare professionals are in constant demand to maintain the health and readiness of the armed forces. Additionally, the military provides stable employment, and nurses are needed in both peacetime and during deployments or emergencies. Also, military nurses have numerous opportunities for professional advancement and development. The military offers specialized training, opportunities to earn advanced degrees, and attend professional conferences. These avenues contribute to personal growth and a fulfilling career. Moreover, military nurses work in a variety of settings, from hospitals and clinics to field units and humanitarian missions. This diversity offers a rich and varied work experience, enabling nurses to broaden their skill set and adapt to different environments.

Challenges of a Career in Military Nursing:

There are several challenges to being a military nurse. Military nursing can be physically and emotionally demanding, especially in combat zones or during humanitarian missions. The fast-paced and high-stress environment requires nurses to be resilient, adaptable, and ready to respond to emergencies at any time. Military nurses often experience frequent relocations due to the nature of military service. While this can broaden their horizons and provide diverse experiences, it can also be challenging for personal and family life, requiring constant adjustments and upheavals. Military nurses face the risk of being deployed to combat zones, where they may be exposed to danger and trauma. This reality adds an element of risk to their work and demands a strong sense of duty and courage.

Close up of scrubs and a stethoscope

Insights from Military Nurses

Here, two military nurses share their stories, from the stress of coordinating care in a combat zone to dealing with prejudice and personal growth, all while caring for the men and women serving in the U.S. armed forces. These testimonials emphasize the unique blend of challenges and rewards that come with their service. While the demanding nature of their work and potential exposure to difficult situations are acknowledged, the sense of purpose, the opportunity to serve their country, and the personal and professional growth they experience are highly fulfilling aspects of their careers.

For example, Joseph D. Hacinas, R.N., M.S.N., C.N.S., P.H.N., Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy Nurse Corps says:

I have always seen nursing as a rewarding career, personally and professionally. Joining the nursing ranks seemed like a no-brainer. And, in general, my expectations of camaraderie, mentorship, and professional development have been met. The one thing that I am certain about is that I will continue to strive in providing the best patient care. The ability to make a difference in patients’ lives means a lot to me. And sometimes, that is all you need.

Artemus Armas, R.N., M.S.H.S, B.S.N, C.E.N., Major, United States Air Force, North Carolina recounts:

Getting the opportunity to be a flight nurse has been the most satisfying job I have had thus far in my nursing career. Being a flight nurse in the Air Force has given me opportunities to be an effective leader and make an immediate difference for those I have taken care of that I would not have had as a nurse in a clinic or hospital. Like the rest of the nation, the Air Force needs more nurses and the AF Flight Nurse community needs even more, as a specialty. I would recommend this life to anyone who likes adventure, leadership opportunities, and enjoys taking care of our wounded warriors.

Serve Your Country and Your Patients with a Rewarding Career in Military Nursing

Military nurses play a dual role that embodies both patriotic duty and compassionate care. They are pivotal in safeguarding the health of service members, veterans, and their families, while simultaneously serving their nation with honor and dedication. Their contributions span from providing critical medical care in combat zones to delivering routine healthcare during peacetime and engaging in humanitarian missions globally. Military nurses possess a unique opportunity to intertwine their dedication to healing and service to the country, making a substantial impact in diverse healthcare settings and beyond. The role offers financial benefits, job security, and abundant opportunities for professional growth. The diverse work environments, the chance to travel and experience different cultures, and the honor of serving the nation make military nursing a fulfilling and impactful career choice.

Learn more about how to become a Registered Nurse and Brookline’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing program to get started. You can also check out the highest paid nursing jobs to discover the best paying nursing careers, their responsibilities, requirements, and job outlook.