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Ron Kness
WRITTEN BY: Ron Kness
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REVIEWED BY: Edumed Editing Staff

Last Updated: 02/07/2024

Editorial Values and Practices

In the diverse landscape of allied healthcare, few roles are as dynamic, challenging, or rewarding as that of military nurses — these positions exist at the intersection of duty, compassion, and skill. Throughout our nation’s history, military nurses in the Army, Navy, and Air Force have served on the frontlines and the home front taking care of military service members and their families. If you are drawn to a career that combines the art of healing with the discipline of military service, this path is for you.

Let this guide serve as your compass as you take your first steps toward understanding the education, licensure, and training required to become a military nurse. Whether you are a prospective nursing student or a registered nurse contemplating a transition to military service, this guide will provide all the information you need to get started. While nursing in any setting is very rewarding, being a military nurse can elevate that level of satisfaction to even greater heights. Join us as we delve into a career where compassion meets courage.

Requirements to Become a Military Nurse

As a military nurse, you are not only a healthcare professional but also an integral part of the Armed Forces, contributing to the health and well-being of military personnel and their families. In this section, we’ll outline the path ahead, offering insights into the education, credentials, training, and other requirements to become a nurse in a military healthcare setting.

In addition to the conditions described below, you must also meet a number of general requirements to pursue a career as a military nurse. These include holding U.S. citizenship or permanent residency and meeting physical standards. You must also be between the ages of 21 and 42 at the time of your enlistment.

Education

The healthcare education required to become a military nurse is similar to that required to become a Registered Nurse (RN) in the civilian world. However, unlike civilian nurses, who can enter the field with an associate degree, military nurses must have at least a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree from an accredited school. If you’re interested in becoming a military nurse, you must either have a BSN already or enroll in an accredited BSN program. If you have three or more years left in your college education, you can enroll in an ROTC program and receive financial assistance from the military as you complete your nursing degree. Upon graduation, you can commission into the Armed Forces as a military nurse.

Credentials

In addition to having a BSN, all prospective military nurses must also pass the National Council Licensure Examination – Registered Nurse (NCLEX-RN) in the state of their residence.

Once they’ve earned their NCLEX-RN credential, civilian nurses can apply to join the military branch of their choice – Army, Navy, or Air Force. The Marine Corp receives their healthcare via Navy personnel in the same way the Space Command receives healthcare via the Air Force Medical Service. The Coast Guard relies on civilian nurses employed by the Coast Guard or nurses with the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) for their healthcare.

Military nurses are also required to hold the basic life support (BLS) certification. Nurses going into a specialty may also need certifications specific to that specialty, such as Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support (ACLS) Pediatric Advanced Life Support.

Training

In addition to the academic training required, military nurses must also complete training to learn how to be officers in the military. Applicants selected by a commissioning board must attend a five to 10-week Basic Officer Leader Course or BOLC that teaches basic military leadership skills. Newly commissioned officers oversee medical enlisted personnel assigned to them. As they receive promotions, they will earn additional supervisory duties including leading and training lower graded officers and enlisted healthcare personnel.

Additional Considerations

Nursing is an inherently physical profession, but in addition to being able to complete the physical tasks associated with patient care, military nurses must also be able to pass their branch’s physical fitness test every six months to guarantee their readiness not only to serve, but also to deploy. Like other military personnel, military nurses must be prepared to restation (move) within the U.S. or abroad roughly every three years.

Work Environments for Military Nurses

As a military nurse, you will generally work in the same environments as civilian nurses: hospitals, clinics, and trauma centers. That’s where the similarities end, though. Depending on your branch of service, you may also be required to serve in unique environments, including aboard ships and aircraft, in base hospitals around the world, or even in a combat zone, and employ different skills with different frequency than your civilian counterparts.

Combat Zones

Nurses serving in combat zones must be prepared to triage and treat military personnel that have experienced extreme trauma, including gunshots, damaged or missing limbs, or other life-threatening injuries. While similar injuries may be found in some civilian trauma centers, their frequency and severity in combat zones is much greater but can ebb and flow in number depending on servicemembers’ level of engagement. Working in a combat setting requires a level head and steady hands. A background or interest in trauma or emergency nursing would also serve you well.

Students who do well in their nursing studies don’t have to worry about taking classes more than once, or the extra time it will take to do so. Most RN to BSN online bridge programs require students to pass core nursing courses with a grade of “C” or better, retake the course, or risk not graduating. If for whatever reason your academic performance dips, such as letting their GPA drop below 3.0, you also run the risk of being dropped from your program, which would quickly bring your timeline to a screeching halt. On the flip side, doing well academically can help you stick to your expected course timeline and have a clearer idea of how long it takes to finish an RN to BSN online.

Military Clinics

Military clinics, also known as military treatment facilities or MTFs, are the heart of the military health system. Serving in a military clinic is much the same as working in a civilian facility except that the patients are usually limited to military personnel and their families. In this setting, you will provide general preventative care including vaccinations; acute care; management of chronic conditions; prenatal care; and more.

Military Hospitals

Like military clinics, military hospitals have a lot in common with their civilian equivalents. Likewise, as mentioned above, the patient population is limited to military members and their families. At the heart of military hospitals are its nurses whose job it is to assess patients, administer medication, maintain charts, change bandages, and coordinate with doctors and specialists to ensure optimal outcomes. Military nurses also play an integral role in shaping military nursing policy at home and abroad.

VA Clinics and Hospitals

VA hospitals and clinics differ from other clinics in that they serve a very specific group of military service members – veterans. Because of this unique group of patients, the type of work nurses perform is geared more toward treating physical and mental issues derived from their patients’ military service.

VA hospitals and clinics are ideal work settings for nurses looking for greater work-life balance, given that their schedules and work environments more closely mirror those at civilian facilities. The VA also uses the latest emerging technologies to provide the highest level of care, so nurses interested in being at the cutting edge of clinical practice would do well to pursue employment opportunities here.

Comparing Military and Civilian Nursing Careers

While the basic responsibilities of military and civilian nurses are essentially the same, there are some distinct differences in training, benefits, bonuses, and career advancement opportunities. While the differences are marginal in some areas, they can be significant in others. Let’s look at these differences.

Additional Training

One of the biggest differences between these two nursing pathways is the training required to pursue them. RNs in the civilian world can enter the field and begin practicing with a nursing diploma, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree. Military nurses, however, must have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree before commissioning. They must also undergo officer training that tests their physical fitness and prepares them with the leadership skills they need to succeed. Finally, military nurses must take additional leadership courses to qualify for promotion, all of which are provided free of charge.

Benefits and Bonuses

Military nurses on active duty receive benefits that are rarely, if ever, available to nurses in the civilian world. For instance, military nurses on active duty receive free medical and dental care; 30 days paid vacation; unlimited paid sick leave; relocation aid when restationing; and a generous retirement program that they can draw at 20 years of qualifying service.

Nursing students enrolled in an accredited BSN program can also earn up to $2,540 per month in a living stipend in addition to as much as $20,000 in accession bonus money just for joining the military as a nurse.

If you already have your BSN, you can opt for student loan repayment, either through the Active Duty Health Professional Loan Repayment Program or Healthcare Professionals Loan Repayment Program, through which you can get up to $120,000 of your student loans paid by your military branch.

Career Advancement

Military nurses have much more distinct career paths than do civilian nurses — military nurses advance through the commissioned officer ranks O-1 to O-8 based on performance, education training, and time in the service. They also advance through one of three career pathways that occasionally overlap: clinical/operational, staff, or executive/leadership.

Most civilian RNs by comparison advance in their careers by earning additional degrees in allied healthcare. For example, some civilian RNs pursue their Master’s in Nursing (MSN) degree and move into leadership roles like Nurse Administrator or Nurse Practitioner.

Practice Settings

Most civilian RNs work in either clinical or hospital settings — often in the same location — for the duration of their career while military nurses restation (move) within the U.S. or to military installations abroad about every three years.

Unlike civilian nurses, military nurses can also be deployed for up to a year to hostile combat environments. In these settings, they gain a wide breadth of experience in trauma nursing that most civilian nurses never have the chance to obtain.

Work-Life Balance

Civilian nurses often have predictable workdays and hours in the same location until they decide to make a change or retire. Military nurses, on the other hand, work in a different location every three years and often work longer hours, especially during deployments. Military nurses may also be called upon to deploy for up to a year to a combat zone. As a result, civilian nurses have a better work-life balance over the short-term and are more likely to develop stronger ties with a single community over the long-term.

That said, what military nurses lack in work-life balance, they more than make up for in ties with their military community and experiences across different cultures and communities.

Salary Prospects in the Military

There are several advantages to being a military nurse — chief among them is competitive pay. As a military nurse, you will be paid according to your education level, rank, and certifications. The average military nurse salary is $70,000 per year, but ranges from $58,000 to $100,000 per year. Newly commissioned nurses can expect to earn closer to $58,000 and watch their pay increase consistently as they progress through their service. On average, the Basic Pay for officers increases approximately four percent per year; promotions in rank are typically accompanied by an average raise of nine percent.

But Basic Pay is only the beginning. Other types of pay include Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS), which is a food allowance; Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) meant to offset rent or mortgage payments; a clothing allowance; Board Certification Pay, Incentive Pay; and Retention bonuses up to $35,000. These additional types of pay more than compensate for the lower income military nurses pull in at the beginning of their careers.

If deployed, military nurses also receive Hazard Duty Pay. And because much of the pay is tax-free, military nurses have more of their income left at the end of each month than their civilian counterparts.

This compensation structure is one of many incentives to serve in the military. Other benefits include free health care, malpractice insurance, paid vacation and sick days, and the ability to retire — and draw retirement pay — after 20 years of service. If you choose to serve as a nurse in the military, you are sure to enjoy a career that is rewarding both personally and financially.