Opportunities for Military Nurses

Opportunities for Military Nurses

Military nurses hold credentials as registered nurses (RNs). While civilian RNs need only an associate degree in nursing, military RNs must hold a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). These professionals start in the rank of commissioned officer but may advance in rank over time. Army nurses, for example, can advance to second lieutenant, first lieutenant, captain, major, and lieutenant colonel.

Civilian and military nurses earn comparable average annual salaries and can pursue similar advanced-practice nurse careers. But military nursing comes with its own unique benefits and challenges.

This guide explores the steps required to become a military nurse, prerequisites by military branch, and benefits of pursuing a military nursing career.

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Skills | Steps | Branches | FAQs

What Is Military Nursing?

Military nurses provide medical care to military personnel, dependents, and civilian casualties. They also assist in disaster relief efforts.

Like other service members, military nurses may serve active or reserve duty. Nurses on active duty serve full time, and those in the U.S. Military Reserve or the National Guard serve part time.

Professionals in military nursing commonly demonstrate intercultural competence, resilience, and a passion for helping others.

Typical RN job duties vary with education, experience, practice area, and military branch. But individuals in this type of nursing job perform many of the same responsibilities as civilian nurses, including checking vital signs, caring for wounds, and preparing patients for surgery.

Professionals in military nursing commonly demonstrate intercultural competence, resilience, and a passion for helping others. These attributes can help practitioners in these nontraditional nursing jobs succeed, especially in adverse circumstances like conflict and disaster zones.

Key Hard Skills

  • Urgent Care: Healthcare providers with urgent care skills possess the ability to respond promptly and proficiently to medical emergencies, like the quick and efficient stabilization of critically injured patients. These skills are pivotal to the success of military nurses working in conflict zones and emergency rooms.
  • Education Skills: Military nurses’ responsibilities may include teaching hospital corpsmen to provide effective patient care. To excel at this task, military nurses must know how to convey their expertise to others using nontechnical communication tools.
  • Patient Safety: Healthcare providers with patient safety skills know how to create safe environments that maximize patient outcomes and help prevent liability issues. This skill benefits military nurses whether they work in traditional or makeshift care settings.

Key Soft Skills

  • Intercultural Competence: Intercultural competence disposes healthcare professionals to get along with and respect people from other cultures, even when in disagreement with their beliefs and values. This skillset can help nurses succeed in the military workplace, where service members must join forces regardless of cultural differences.
  • Cognitive Empathy: Cognitive empathy is the ability to leverage imagination and reasoning skills to gain insight into the behaviors and mental states of others. This skill enables military nurses to quickly identify their patients’ fears, needs, and motivations.
  • Resilience: Resilience allows quick adaptation to changes, promoting the ability to carry on in the face of challenges. This trait helps military nurses adjust to new settings and make life-saving decisions in battle zones and other unsettling and stressful situations.

How Do I Become a Military Nurse?

Individuals interested in working with the U.S. Armed Forces can take a few different pathways. They can earn civilian RN credentials first and then receive a nurse officer commission, find a branch of the military to sponsor their BSN in exchange for service, or study for their BSN while already enlisted as service members. Paths to military nursing jobs normally take at least five years.

Civilian nurses who sign on for active duty or the Military Reserves may qualify for military funds to repay their student loans. Civilian RNs receiving a commission in the military may also qualify for an accession bonus of up to $30,000.

Prospective nurses who wish to pursue military nurse careers can earn their BSN through a military financial program in exchange for a postgraduate commitment to full- or part-time military service. Active-duty, enlisted personnel may also complete BSN programs to become military nurses, though this path is more complex.

Steps from Civilian to Military RN Jobs

  1. Earn Your BSN: To join the military as an RN, you must first earn a BSN from an accredited college or university. A BSN typically requires around 120 credits and takes four years to complete.
  2. Pass the NCLEX: After earning your BSN and completing all clinical requirements, you must take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) for RNs. All states use the NCLEX, but clinical prerequisites may vary by state.
  3. Gain RN Experience: To meet the military nurse eligibility requirements, you may need prior professional experience as an RN. Experience prerequisites vary by military branch and role. But many roles require at least 6-12 months of RN experience.
  4. Begin the Application Process: To launch the application process, you must speak to a military recruiter. Recruiters can help you determine eligibility for receiving commission in the different military branches.
  5. Complete the Application: After deciding which branch to join, you can complete and submit a commission application packet. As part of the military’s decision process, the commission board will need to approve you for the rank of commissioned officer.
  6. Complete Officer Training: If approved, you must complete commissioned officer training. Training programs typically cover topics such as military structure, traditions and etiquette, and leadership responsibilities. The length of officer training varies by military branch but programs typically last 5-11 weeks.

Steps from Service Member to Nurse

The military provides a variety of financial aid opportunities to enlisted service members interested in pursuing a military nurse career. Service personnel can receive a fully funded BSN degree through scholarship programs, enlisted commissioning programs, or the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).

These programs give participants access to colleges and universities in exchange for a postgraduate service commitment. Fully funded service members must spend a limited number of days on active duty or in drill practice while studying.

For example, the United States Air Force scholarship program covers tuition and fees, textbooks, small equipment items, and supplies and comes with an allowance for living expenses. Scholarship recipients must spend 45 days on active duty while studying and complete three years of service after earning their military nursing credentials.

This list represents the typical steps required for enlisted service members to become military nurses.

  1. Explore Funding Opportunities: As an enlisted service member, the first step to becoming a military RN is to explore your eligibility for military funding.
  2. Earn RN Credentials: After enrolling in a military financing program, you can earn your BSN degree and pass the NCLEX. Some financing programs may cover only 2-3 years of a BSN program.

    The commissioning board may approve service members for officer rank without a valid RN license. But obtaining your license before applying to the board can increase your approval chances. If you decide to postpone, you will need to obtain your license within one year of receiving commission.
  3. Complete Job Training: After becoming a licensed RN, you must attend officer school and complete job training specific to your service branch.

Steps from RN Positions to Nurse Practitioners

The military also provides a variety of continuing education opportunities to current military RNs interested in becoming advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).

  1. Explore Continuing Education Opportunities: As a military RN, the first step to becoming a military APRN is examining your continuing education opportunities within your service branch.

    Continuing education options include sponsorship programs, tuition-assistance programs, and military schools. Sponsorship and tuition-assistance programs enable you to attend civilian universities at virtually no cost. But you can also choose to attend a military graduate school, such as the graduate program in anesthesia nursing at the Army Medical Center of Excellence at Fort Sam Houston in Texas.
  2. Earn Your MSN: After enrolling in a military school, sponsorship, or tuition-assistance program, you can earn your master of science in nursing degree. During your degree, you must choose an advanced practice specialty, such as family nursing, nurse anesthetics, or mental health.
  3. Renew Your RN License: Practicing as an APRN requires RN licensure. If your RN license has expired, you should renew it.
  4. Obtain APRN Certification: The final step to becoming a military APRN is to pass a national certification exam in your chosen advanced practice area.

You can earn an MSN and gain professional APRN experience before joining the military. This may allow you to serve as a military APRN immediately after completing commissioned officer training.

Learn More About the NP Career Pathway

What Is a Nurse Practitioner? How to Become a Nurse Practitioner Nurse Practitioner vs. Registered Nurse

Professional Spotlight: Velinda Chapman

Why did you become a nurse? Which interested you first: nursing or the military?

I became a nurse for the same reason most other people choose to become a nurse: to help people and make a positive impact on their health and well-being. My dad was in the Air Force for 20 years, and he had an interesting career. I also wanted to gain a technical skill and perform an interesting job that would allow me to travel.

I tried to join the Air Force, but the female quota had been met for the year, so I joined the Navy instead. I chose aviation electronics and was able to achieve E-6 in just under six years. I applied for and was accepted into the medical enlisted commissioning program, which supported active duty service members to become nurses.

What does your typical work day look like?

My job title is clinical assistant professor, and my duties are to provide clinical simulation experiences that meet best practices and achieve desired student outcomes. I typically have two types of days: preparing for nursing simulations and delivering simulations. An actual simulation with nursing students providing care to a simulated patient can generally last between 10-20 minutes.

There is a faculty pre-brief and then a student pre-brief that generally lasts 15 minutes. This prepares everyone for the simulation. After the simulation, everyone participates in a debrief, which usually lasts at least twice as long as the simulation. This is where the most learning happens. Each simulation start-to-finish lasts about 90 minutes, and we run three or four groups each day.

What surprises most people is the amount of time and resources needed to deliver a simulation. Besides the space/setting, we need either special manikins or actors to be simulated patients. Equipment and supplies are needed, as well as the technology to support the simulation.

Simulationists spend a lot of time preparing the scenario, fine-tuning the simulation with faculty before delivery, and reviewing best practices as they continue to evolve with this training modality. I often spend two or three full days preparing for each simulation.

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of working in nursing?

Some of the most rewarding aspects of working in nursing are working with other professionals who are dedicated to the profession, making a difference (even a small one) in the health of a patient, and working with nursing students to become a safe and competent professional nurses.

What are some of the most challenging aspects?

I believe the most challenging aspects of nursing are all the grey areas. There isn’t always a clear-cut decision or way to do things, because of the dynamic context of delivering nursing care. Nurses have to develop clinical judgment based upon all of their nursing program prerequisites, nursing theory, the nursing process, and experience. I believe this is a critical area that nursing simulation can support by providing opportunities for practice, allowing for mistakes and “re-dos” to develop the skills to be safe and competent.

How did your degrees prepare you for your role?

My BSN prepared me for nursing, and my various duty assignments provided a wide range of nursing experiences that help me to deliver simulations across the nursing program. My M.Ed from North Carolina State University focused on learning excellent teaching skills for adults. My Ph.D. in education with a specialization in training and performance improvement really highlighted all the various means to enhance human performance in the workplace. I am very passionate about not just teaching nursing students, but about how I can design training that translates into better patient care.

What was your career path that led you to this position? What do you think helped you most on your journey?

After retiring from the Navy, I began teaching part-time at the community college. After a couple years, I took a detour to work in the operating room for a few years. I subsequently got a full-time job teaching at a different community college where I was first exposed to high-fidelity simulation. I continued to work as a clinical instructor and nursing skills laboratory instructor until I got a full-time position as a simulationist.

What advice would you give to students considering pursuing a career as a military nurse?

I think it is important to know that as a military nurse, you will wear two hats: nursing and officer. Both are incredibly important and require a balance between the two. I think the next most important aspect to understand is that the needs of the organization takes precedence over your choice of specialty, working hours, time off, and additional duties.

I think it is important to know that as a military nurse, you will wear two hats: nursing and officer.

Whether someone is a military nurse for four years or 30+ years, it can be a great experience if you can accept how all of these aspects impact your personal and professional life. I think it is important to carefully weigh out the pros and cons of being a military nurse.

Portrait of Dr. Velinda Chapman, Ph.D., BSN, RN, CHSE, CNE, LT, USNR (ret)

Dr. Velinda Chapman, Ph.D., BSN, RN, CHSE, CNE, LT, USNR (ret)

Dr. Velinda Chapman, Ph.D., BSN, RN, CHSE, CNE, LT, USNR (ret), is a clinical assistant professor and simulation educator with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Velinda is passionate about providing simulation experiences that translate into clinical performance excellence. Velinda retired from the U.S. Navy with 21 years of service and was awarded the Navy Achievement Medal. Prior to being commissioned in the Nurse Corps, Velinda was an avionics technician first-class petty officer and earned the enlisted aviation warfare specialist and the master training specialist designations. She has been a nurse for 26 years and a simulationist for seven years. Velinda is a certified healthcare simulation educator and a certified academic clinical nurse educator. Velinda holds a Ph.D. in education with a specialization in training and performance improvement from Capella University. She earned an M.Ed. from North Carolina State University and a BSN from Hawaii Pacific University.

Nurse Careers by Military Branch

Not only do education and experience requirements vary by type of nursing job, they differ by military branch. Three of the military’s six independent branches boast their own independent nurse corps: the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Air Force.

Nurses interested in an RN job in the U.S. Coast Guard must apply through the USPHS Commissioned Corps. Pursuing a nurse career in the Marine Corps requires credentials as a commissioned Navy officer. Finally, commissioned Air Force nurse officers may qualify for APRN and RN positions in the U.S. Space Force.

Army Nurse Corps

Military nurses in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps provide nursing care to soldiers and their families in army medical facilities and assist in global relief efforts.

To qualify for an army RN position, applicants must be U.S. citizens or legal residents aged 21-42 and in good physical condition. Qualified candidates must also hold a BSN from a nursing school with accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and a valid RN license.

Eligibility for a clinical RN job requires at least six months of medical-surgical RN experience. However, learners may choose to gain the required experience in the Army’s nurse residency program.

Navy Nurse Corps

Commissioned nurse officers in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps provide medical care to sailors, marines, and their families. They also assist during disaster relief efforts. Typical work settings include Navy medical facilities, hospital ships, and aircraft squadrons.

To qualify for a Navy RN position, applicants must be a U.S. citizen between the ages of 18-41, be in good physical condition, and hold a BSN from a CCNE-accredited nursing school.

Commissioned officers without an RN license must obtain one within a year of beginning active duty service. Becoming a Navy nurse furthermore requires completing specialized Navy training and education.

Air Force Nurse Corps

Military nurses in the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps provide medical care to airmen and their dependents, and assist in humanitarian efforts.

Air Force nurses work in a variety of settings, including air bases, air stations, aircrafts and — for the time being — even spacecrafts. Although the U.S. Space Force became its own independent military branch in 2019, this division still depends on Air Force personnel for most of its military services, including nursing.

To qualify for an Air Force nurse career, applicants must be U.S. citizens between the ages of 18-47 in good physical condition, who hold a BSN from a CCNE-accredited nursing school and an RN license. Eligibility for a clinical RN position furthermore requires at least 12 months of RN experience in medical-surgical nursing.

Should I Become a Military Nurse?

Military nurses face unique challenges, especially if deployed. Serving in foreign territory can be stressful and emotionally demanding. Deployed nurse professionals may need to spend years away from loved ones, caring for wounded service members and civilian casualties. Nurses deployed to battle zones put their own lives on the line.

As compensation for their sacrifices, military nurses receive benefits like low- or no-cost healthcare, a housing allowance or free on-base residence, and access to paid continuing education.

Professionals in this type of nursing career may receive higher compensation than their civilian counterparts. Military and civilian nurses earn comparable average annual salaries. But military nurses typically qualify for a variety of pay bonuses on top of their base salary, such as accession bonuses, hazardous duty pay, and bonuses for healthcare professionals.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What type of nurses are there in the military?

    Military nurses enter a specific military branch as commissioned officers and can rise in military rank over time. Commissioned nurses can serve as RNs or APRNs in virtually all practice areas.

  • Do RN positions in military nursing get deployed?

    Yes. RNs serving in the military on active duty or in the Military Reserves may get deployed. Individuals in military RN positions thus need to be prepared for the emotional toll of working in conflict and disaster zones.

  • Which branch of the military is best for nursing jobs?

    Which military branch is best for nursing jobs depends on your career goals and personal interests. Only the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Air Force possess their own independent nurse corps. So, if you seek a nurse career in a military nurse corps, you will need to apply to one of these service branches.

  • Do ICU nurse jobs make more money in the military?

    Yes, ICU nurses tend to make more money in the military than in civilian nurse jobs. Average annual salaries are similar for civilian and military ICU nurse jobs. But ICU nurses in the military often qualify for a variety of pay bonuses on top of their base salary.

  • Is a military nurse among the highest-paying nursing jobs?

    Yes, nursing jobs in the military are among the highest-paying nursing jobs. Base salaries for military nurses are comparable to civilian nurse salaries. But military nurses often qualify for a variety of pay bonuses in addition to their base salary.


Featured Image: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

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