Those who pursue a career in nursing are answering a higher calling. They’re drawn to a profession that plays a critical role in caring for others, shapes patients' health and wellness and makes a meaningful impact in the healthcare field. This selflessness is present in nearly all nurses, whether they work in the ER, ICU, oncology or any department they choose to pursue.
This sense of duty is especially pronounced among those who combine their passion for healthcare with their dedication to serving their country. Joining the military as a nurse provides a unique opportunity for nurses to be at the frontlines of research, take advantage of greater career opportunities and enjoy greater autonomy than can normally be found in the private sector.
Making the decision to pursue nursing careers in the military isn’t one that should be made lightly. It’s important to understand the difference between private and public sector nurses and what impact becoming a military nurse can have on one’s career. Let’s take a closer look at exactly what military nurses do and the education the role requires.
History of Military Nurses
As long as the United States has had a military presence, there have been nurses to provide vital healthcare. In fact, military nurses can trace their roots back to the Revolutionary War. According to the Army Nurse Corps Association (ANCA), the Continental Army requested nurses to take care of sick and wounded soldiers in 1776 and they served in makeshift tent hospitals throughout the course of the war.
Perhaps no military nurse is more well known than Clara Barton, who eventually went on to found the American Red Cross. Nicknamed the “Angel of the Battlefield,” she often persuaded officials to let her get closer to the battlefield so she could provide vital care and comfort to wounded soldiers.
“I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them,” she wrote her father, according to the Washington Post.
Despite all the contributions that nurses made to the military throughout early American history, it wasn’t until 1901 that they became an official part of the armed forces. The U.S. Army Nurse Corps (ANC) was established in 1901 as a part of the U.S. Army Medical Department.
During World War II, this expansion became even more pronounced. More than 59,000 American nurses served in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II, many of whom did so under fire in field hospitals throughout Europe and the Pacific.
Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, military nurses continued to serve on the frontlines of combat, including in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. They are also critical to keeping Americans safe at home, whether that involves responding to natural disasters or offering vital support to hospitals.
What Do Military Nurses Do?
There have been many iterations of military nurses throughout American history, and today they exist in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. The role has certainly evolved throughout the decades. Military nurses’ main duties today include providing medical care not just to service members in active combat zones, but to servicemembers, veterans and their families stateside as well.
Much like their civilian counterparts, military nurses serve a variety of different roles. In addition to providing care for service members in the field, they can work in the full spectrum of nursing specialties. Additionally, they can pursue careers as nurse practitioners, educators and administrators. They also participate in medical research and advanced medical care, placing them at the forefront of medical advancements.
One of the biggest differences between military and civilian nurses is that military nurses know the ins and outs of the military landscape. Service members and their families often have different needs and expectations than the civilian population, and the culture can be different than a civilian hospital as well, so they have to be trained to know how to work with the military population.
How to Become a Military Nurse
The journey to becoming a military nurse begins with graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (or an advanced degree). Then, after passing the National Council Licensure Examination, prospective military nurses should speak to recruiters associated with the particular branch they’re interested in joining and talk about completing the application packet.
Of course, there are significant differences between civilian nurses and military nurses. One of the most common military nursing questions is whether military nurses have to go through basic training. Because military nurses are officers rather than enlisted soldiers, they do not have to attend the basic training that soldiers do.
While they may not undergo basic training, military nurses do have to complete some specific courses to ensure they have the right background, education and training to succeed in their role. If they are in the Army, they must complete the Basic Officer Leader Course (BOLC) — a two-phase course meant to produce commissioned officers in the military by equipping them with the necessary leadership skills, familiarity with small unit tactics and branch-specific capabilities.
There is also a physical component to the BOLC, which requires students to take and pass the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT). The APFT consists of three sections: two minutes of pushups, two minutes of situps and a two-mile run. Each participant must score at least 50 points in each event, and points are awarded based on age and gender.
Navy Nurses are required to attend Officer Development School (ODS), a five-week program that focuses on topics such as the Navy's military structure, military etiquette and leadership development. They also must complete the Navy Physical Readiness Test (PRT), which includes push-ups, sit-ups and either running or swimming.
Nurses in the Air Force are required to complete Officer Training School (OTS), a nine-and-a-half-week course that teaches the history of the Air Force and training in the skills necessary to lead the men and women of the Air Force. It also includes instruction in culture, field exercises, drill and ceremonies and small arms training. Similar to the other branches, Air Force Nurses also must complete a physical fitness test that measures their strength and endurance.
A career as a military nurse opens doors to so many different opportunities. Like other healthcare fields, there are a variety of nursing careers in the military depending on individual interests, strengths, skills and career goals.
Similar to the civilian arena, there is a considerable shortage of military nurses, so there is a significant need for experienced, skilled professionals.
“We’re experiencing the same types of shortages and concerns that our civilian counterparts are in terms of nursing in general,” Major Carolyn Gales, RN, BSN, MS, MBA, active duty nursing program manager for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, in Fort Knox, Kentucky, told RN.com.
With that in mind, here is a closer look at the specific types of nursing careers in the military.
Army Public Health Nurse
An Army Public Health Nurse’s (APNH) primary duty is to assess health risks within the community. This can encompass everything from minimizing the spread of disease to identifying ways to improve overall well-being for service members. By mitigating disease and injury and strengthening overall soldier health, APHNs are a key component for ensuring troop readiness.
APNHs are often front and center of maintaining the community's overall health. For example, they act as a liaison between the community, local and state public health officials, schools and public affairs offices to make sure that any health-related information is communicated properly. Additionally, they establish activities to promote and protect the health of the military community.
Advanced Practice Registered Nurses
Military communities need highly educated and skilled nurses to provide direct patient care — this is the role filled by Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs). They work alongside healthcare providers to administer care on bases all over the country and the world and they’re dedicated to ensuring everyone's wellness and providing treatment.
APRNs work in a variety of settings across different branches of the military. Their duties typically include maintaining patient records, performing complete physical exams, conducting diagnostic testing and making patient referrals. They also serve a vital role in treating wounded soldiers and in disaster relief.
There are a number of specialties available to APRNs who wish to have a more targeted career path. For example, they can pursue careers as Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners (PMHNPs), who provide a high level of care to troops in rehabilitation programs, mental health clinics and combat stress units. They can also pursue a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) track and specialize in care of individuals and families or become an Adult Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner, who focuses on young adults, aging adults, and older adult populations.
Regardless of which track they choose to pursue, APRNs are required to have an advanced degree such as a Master of Science in Nursing.
Emergency Room Nurse
Emergency Room Nurses are an essential part of the military healthcare environment. Teams have to recognize emergencies and put in place the interventions they need, and they come in contact with patients from all walks of life and of all ages.
Emergency Room Nurses gain experience with everything from treating respiratory disease to cardiovascular disease to hematology/oncology. Additionally, Emergency Room Nurses in the Army are members of the highly regarded U.S. Army Nurse Corps.
To become an Emergency Room Nurse, you have to have an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).
Critical Care Nurse
Critical Care Nurses in the military provide life-saving medical services, procedures and consultations to soldiers and their families when they need it most. Critical Care Nurses are equipped with the skills and knowledge to provide specialized care to patients who are severely ill or injured.
Critical Care Nurses work with patients who are suffering from severe medical emergencies or injuries, so they are at the front lines of helping save the lives of service members and their families. They perform duties such as patient assessments, implement intensive interventions and therapies and monitor patients. They must possess the ability to make quick, expert decisions and the skills to be calm under intense pressure. Most Critical Care Nurses possess a BSN.
Benefits of Becoming a Military Nurse
Becoming a military nurse provides ample benefits. In addition to providing an opportunity for prospective nurses to contribute to a cause that is bigger than themselves, it also provides numerous tangible benefits that can be put to good use for those looking to advance their careers, broaden their expertise or expand their knowledge base.
Military nurses are offered competitive salaries. Each person’s salary is dependent on their education and experience and they are eligible for incentive pay and retention bonuses commensurate with their service amount and job title. You can take a closer look at the breakdown here.
Of course, the benefits available go beyond signing bonuses and salaries. Military nurses also have the opportunity to take advantage of loan repayment programs. The active-duty health professions loan repayment program can earn participants up to $120,000 to pay off their nursing school tuition. Education benefits also extend to nurses who would like to further their education while employed as military nurses, with opportunities for continuing education and clinical specialization so they can take the necessary steps to advance their careers.
Finally, military nurses are entitled to considerable medical benefits. According to Army.com, they can take advantage of low-cost or no-cost medical, dental and life insurance. Furthermore, military nurses are provided with generous retirement plan options, housing allowances and 30 days of paid vacation earned annually.
Take the First Step
Making the decision to pursue a career as a military nurse is a significant undertaking. Those considering joining the military as a nurse must first make sure they have the foundational education necessary. For many, this requires an undergraduate degree to get started.
Anybody interested in a military nursing career can get their start with the online RN to BS in Nursing program at Norwich University — the oldest of the six senior military colleges and the originators of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC).
The CCNE-accredited RN to BS in Nursing program is delivered entirely online and offers a rigorous curriculum that prepares students for a variety of career paths. Courses are built around areas such as leadership, research and policy process — all of which will lay the foundation for a successful military nursing career. Plus, with a large alumni network in military service, Norwich University provides the opportunity to connect with and learn from fellow graduates.