Among various assignments as a U.S. Navy nurse, Commander Ava Abney has practiced in a pediatric outpatient clinic in Puerto Rico, run an obstetric services department in Guam and cared for service men and women aboard an aircraft carrier. Spanning the globe on land and at sea, the African-American nurse’s 18-year career in the military has given her opportunities she never would have had as a civilian.

“It’s so wide open,” says Abney, who now heads up quality management at the Naval Hospital in Pensacola, Florida. “And it’s still very exciting.”

Few institutions can match the career diversity offered by the military, where nurses are groomed for leadership from day one and have wide-ranging opportunities for training and advancement.

“We’re all about leadership,” agrees Lieutenant Commander Select Darnell Hunt, an African-American Navy nurse who is a medical officer recruiter in Kansas City, Missouri. “If you follow the career paths, you’re able to progress to whatever level you choose.”

Endless Opportunities, Unbeatable Benefits

Even before the global war on terrorism and Operation Iraqi Freedom, demand was heavy for nurses to serve in the Army, Navy and Air Force. Nurses work in a variety of specialties in the military, including OB/GYN, community health, mental health, pediatrics and critical care.

The Army is focusing its current recruiting efforts on operating room nurses, medical/surgical nurses and nurse anesthetists, although it continues to recruit nurses from other specialties as well, says Colonel Ann Richardson, chief, Army Nurse Corps Division of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command. As for the Navy, Hunt says the greatest needs now are for generalists, med/surg nurses and critical care.

To join the military nurse corps, nurses must have a BSN degree from an accredited nursing school, be in good physical condition and have an RN license in any of the 50 states. There are also age limits–under 35 years old for the Navy and Air Force and under 47 for the Army–although older applicants can apply for age waivers. Nurses who join the military enter as commissioned officers and begin their military careers as leaders from the very beginning.

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Military pay is comparable to that of civilian nursing jobs, especially after promotion, officers say. The military also offers signing bonuses of $10,000. Benefits include opportunities for graduate education and other training, full medical and dental coverage, up to 30 days paid vacation each year and a 20-year retirement potential.

Military nurses care for active-duty and retired personnel in military hospitals as well as serve in the field during emergencies and war. They also work in research, education, management, recruitment and training. The opportunities are almost endless.

Developing Leadership Skills

“As nurses, we are on the rise,” says Commander Select Richelle Kay, division officer of an oncology ward at Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia. After serving a three-year stint in the Navy as a staff nurse out of college, Kay went on reserve status and worked as a civilian nurse in a trauma center. It wasn’t long, though, before she yearned to return to the Navy, where she says the level of professionalism and job satisfaction among medical staff can’t be beat.

Her first assignment after returning to active duty was in Oceanside, Calif., where she worked in operational management–planning and coordinating medical training to make sure the Navy was ready in case of military conflict. The experience enabled her to step away from the bedside and develop strategic leadership skills. “That gave me a bigger picture of what Navy medicine was all about and why we [nurses] are such a critical component,” she notes.

Later, Kay, an African American, became one of the first minority Navy flight nurses and was stationed on Diego Garcia Island in the Indian Ocean. Kay and another nurse developed and ran wellness programs for U.S military personnel stationed there, provided acute care and, when necessary, flew with critical patients to Singapore to keep them stabilized during the five-hour flight.

Lieutenant Colonel Yolanda Ruiz-Isales also has had many opportunities to hone her leadership skills all over the world. Her Army career highlights include an assignment as head nurse in the triage section of a MASH unit in Seoul, South Korea, and an assignment as one of three team members sent to the Czech Republic to help it establish a nursing corps similar to that of the U.S. Army.

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“If you are a person who wants to remain stagnant, this is not the place to work,” Ruiz-Isales emphasizes. She joined the Army after working in a civilian hospital in Puerto Rico, deciding that the military would offer greater opportunities and compensation for her work. Now, 18 years later, she remains satisfied with her decision.

Upward Mobility

Mobility in the military isn’t just about moving physically from one place to another. It also means moving up in rank to positions of higher responsibility and pay. Opportunities for promotions are many, says Major Darlene Foley, an American Indian nurse who is from the Lower Brule Sioux reservation in South Dakota and now oversees OB/GYN outpatient clinics at Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

“In the 10 years I was a civilian nurse, I saw that people stayed in the same positions for years,” she recalls. “In the Air Force, I came in as a clinical nurse and started off as a lieutenant. Now I’m a major and OB/GYN flight commander and I oversee 100 people. I see a lot of minority nurses do very well in the military.”

Major Yolanda Bledsoe, an African-American flight commander and chief of group education and training at Wilford Hall, says advancement in the military isn’t about race. “It’s about how I get my job done, how I communicate with people and how I mentor people. No matter where you go, if you bloom and do a good job, the sky’s the limit.” Each assignment brings new challenges, Bledsoe adds, but “I have learned so much outside of my comfort zone.”

Ava Abney agrees. She remembers the awesome responsibility of caring for ship personnel aboard the Navy aircraft carrier. “That was when I really grew up,” she asserts. “Out on that huge boat as one of two nurses for 5,000 people, what you say goes. You become very aware of how important nurses are.”

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Work/Life Balance

While the mobility of military life can provide stimulating opportunities and career advancement, it can also bring personal challenges, especially for people raising families.

Lieutenant Maria Millsap says the military works with officers as much as possible to accommodate their work/life needs. Millsap, who is of Filipino descent, joined the Navy out of high school in 1979 and served as a hospital corpsman–similar to a civilian LPN. Then she used Navy tuition benefits to attend the University of Washington in Seattle, graduating with her bachelor’s in nursing in 1996. Not wanting to move her family since then, she has managed to stay in the region, although she has held different assignments, first at the Naval Hospital in nearby Bremerton and then as a nurse recruiter in Seattle.

Although it’s possible to stay in one geographical area for more than a few years, nurse officers have to keep in mind that the military’s needs sometimes supercede their own, especially during wartime. Air Force Captain Luis Perez, nurse manager for the internal medicine clinic at Wilford Hall Medical Center, had just been transferred to San Antonio, Texas, in September 2002. Then he received word that he would be deployed to Germany for five and a half months to help expand a hospital for service men and women wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Military nurses must have the support of their families to cope with the stresses of possible deployment, says Perez. “It’s a different mindset. You can be here one day, then at night the phone rings and you have to leave. Your life has to be very flexible and your family has to be the same way.”

Despite the challenges of sudden deployment, Perez recalls serving in Germany as a rewarding part of his career. He will never forget the determination of the patients and how they cared for one another.

Says Bledsoe: “I have my bags ready to go at any point in time. We have to realize we’re officers first. When you come into the military, it’s almost like you’re answering a higher calling.”

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That sense of a higher calling is one of the intangible rewards of military service, nurse officers agree. Abney feels it every day as she watches the color guard raise and lower the flag and thinks about how the service men and women overseas see the same ceremony each day, too. “It puts things in perspective,” she says. “It leaves me with a great feeling–that I’m serving my nation.”

Opportunities for Learning–and Teaching

Opportunity for continued education and training is still another benefit of military nursing. All three military branches offer educational benefits through scholarships and tuition assistance programs, which can pay up to 100% of tuition costs in exchange for service commitments.

Kay, for instance, earned her master’s degree in community health at the University of North Carolina under the Navy’s Duty Under Instruction program (DUINS), which pays the full cost of tuition and fees and provides full pay and benefits for qualified applicants to attend graduate school full time.

Military nurses can also branch out beyond health care. Bledsoe earned her master’s in adult education–which enabled her to teach professional military officer courses–by taking classes at night. She paid 25% of the cost and the Air Force picked up the remainder of the tab.

Another advantage of working in the military, nurses say, is the camaraderie among medical staff. Nurses and doctors work together as peers, a relationship that gives nurses more empowerment than they would typically have in a non-military setting.

“In the military, the partnership is more evident than in the civilian world,” Foley says. “There are better team-building opportunities than in civilian life.”

Doctors and nurses go through weapons training together, for instance, and practice setting up field hospitals with one another. In some cases, nurses even outrank doctors.
The military, of course, is not for everyone. But minority nurses who are flexible, enjoy leadership challenges, like to travel and want to grow professionally and personally might want to consider serving, nurse officers say.

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If you are interested in a military nursing career, Kay suggests researching and comparing all three branches to see which one best matches your needs. Then talk to recruiters in your area. Ask as many questions as possible, Kay advises, and take a friend or family member along to ask questions, too.

“After you decide which branch you want to join, ask to speak to some nurses,” she adds. “You need to know day to day what it’s like being a nurse in the service.”

The “War at Home” Needs Nurses

As the global war on terrorism places increasing demand on the military medical community, new opportunities are opening up for civilian nurses interested in working for the U.S. Army. The Army is now recruiting civilian nurses for assignments of one to four years to backfill positions held by active duty and reserve personnel who are currently deployed overseas. Civilians are needed to work in army hospitals as well as at demobilization sites all over the country to screen soldiers before and after they return from deployment.
Benefits include working in state-of-the-art medical facilities, training, 13 to 26 days of vacation time per year, 10 paid holidays, sick leave of up to 13 days and group life and health insurance. The Army’s goal is to recruit 250 RNs, 700 LPNs and 100 nursing assistants. “We think it will be a continuing need for the next several years,” says JoAnn Robertson, human resources director for the U.S. Army Medical Command.
For more information about the Army Medical Command Centralized Civilian Recruitment Program, call (800) 633-3646.

For More Information

U.S. Army Nurse Corps
(800) USA-ARMY, ext. 183

U.S. Navy Nurse Corps
(800) USA-NAVY

U.S. Air Force

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