Helping Those Who Serve: Working as a Military Nurse or a Nurse in Veterans Affairs

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Nursing careers in the militaryWould you like to put your nursing skills to work helping U.S. soldiers and veterans? If so, it’s important to do your research. For starters, these nursing fields are different in two key ways:

  • Military nurses are soldiers in a division of the U.S. Military (Army, Navy, Air Force, etc.). You’ll have to go through Officer Training after becoming a registered nurse.
  • VA nurses are employees of Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics. Military service typically isn’t required, but it can be helpful to a VA nurse’s career.

There’s a lot to be learned about these careers, so we thought it’d be best to get some experts involved. Lt. Col. Toni Ann Loftus, assistant chief nurse of the U.S. Army, shared some insight with us about her 18 years of experience as a military nurse.

What does a career in military nursing look like?

Loftus expanded on the distinctions between nursing in veterans affairs and the military: “Typically,” she says, “a civilian nurse is recruited into the military by a recruiter. Once the paperwork and background checks are complete, the nurse is scheduled for Officer’s Basic Training. Registered nurses are required to have a bachelor of science in nursing to enter military services.”

After training, military nurses can be deployed anywhere troop support is needed. Military nurses fall into two categories: active-service nurses and reserve-status nurses. Active-service nurses work in specific military treatment facilities. Reserve nurses work in specific Army Reserve combat support hospitals.

The U.S. Army website provides more details on military nursing. Careers featured on the website include:

  • Psychiatric nurse practitioner
  • Critical care nurse
  • Family nurse practitioner
  • Perioperative nurse

What does a career in VA nursing care look like?

Veterans Affairs nurses deal with some of the most complex cases in medicine — combat trauma, psychological stress, injury rehabilitation and much more.

VA nurses work in facilities built specifically for veterans — that is, former members of the U.S. military — but they also work with active-duty soldiers and reservists.

Several nursing careers are available in the VA. We pulled this list from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website:

  • Registered nurse
  • Clinical care specialist
  • Nurse anesthetist
  • Travel nurse
  • Nurse executive
  • Psychiatric nurse
  • Nurse practitioner
  • Licensed practical/vocational nurse

These career titles are similar to nursing jobs in civilian hospitals, but the work will be much different because of the unique needs of active-duty soldiers and veterans.

How does the training differ for nurses who work in Veterans Affairs?

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs trains registered nurses to work with military or veteran patients. The VA Learning Opportunities Residency (VALOR) program offers clinical nursing practice at a VA-approved health care facility.

There isn’t a huge difference in training from standard registered nursing licensure. Military nurses and nurses of the VA are required to have a bachelor’s in nursing, at least.

Lt. Col. Loftus notes that military nurses are considered soldiers first, nurses second. “Nursing is simply their military occupational specialty.” Military nurses must complete military training just like other soldiers. They are also encouraged to progress in their military and civilian education, and to move up in the ranks.

Regardless of how nurses get into military or veterans nursing, they’ll get more training in the field. Loftus was a registered nurse when she joined. “Policies and procedures are always changing and evolving with new technology or social issues,” she said. “In my career, we’ve gone from ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ to women in highly competitive combat positions.”

Patient care standards also can be much different for military or VA health care providers. Nurses have to be able to adapt their practice specifically to the needs of veterans and soldiers.

Are the nursing practices different for military nurses or nurses of the VA?

While the clinical training of military and VA nursing remains the same, the bedside manner techniques, and patient care methods are starkly different. Loftus said her military nursing gave her a greater appreciation for treating the “whole patient.”

She spoke of working with soldiers who were mostly young adult men dealing with traumatic injuries, complex surgeries and intense rehabilitation all on their own. She said it’s hard to see these young men in pain, but she also realized it was crucial to provide the best possible care. They relied on her, and that left a lasting impression.

Because many patients at VA hospitals experience significant psychological side effects from their military service, it’s paramount to have a resistant, yet gentle touch.

How do you transition into a career in VA nursing?

VA nursing is not a profession you should jump into before weighing the pros and cons. But if you’ve made up your mind to make the move, check out the U.S. Office of Nursing Services website, which provides helpful resources and learning opportunities for Veterans Affairs nursing professionals.

Some programs include:

  • TMS Genomics Education
  • RN Transition to Practice
  • VA Nursing Academic Partnerships
  • VA Post-Baccalaureate Nurse Residency
  • VA Travel Nurse Corps
  • Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences

Whatever you decide, we applaud you for considering how to use your life-saving skills and caring nature to support the people who have served to protect our nation.

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