How to Become a Registered Nurse in the Military

Caucasian nurse walking in hospital
John Fedele

What Is a Registered Nurse?

On the face of it, this seems like a silly question, but to this day nursing is still plagued by countless myths and misconceptions.

In the 20th century, nurse evolved from a subordinate position as the doctor's "handmaiden" into a highly educated, largely autonomous profession. Registered nurses (RNs) provide day-to-day patient care based on a holistic model that concerns itself not only with medical procedures and drug administration, but also daily hygiene, mobility, and psychological and spiritual care.

Although still reliant on doctors and other primary care providers to order prescriptions and certain treatments, registered nurses have become collaborative professionals rather than subordinates, with an arsenal of independent actions to help repair, maintain, and promote patients' health.

Specifically, a registered nurse is distinguished from others, such as licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants, by education level, treatment privileges, and independence. Only a registered nurse may assess and treat wounds, review diagnostic tests, and give medications ordered by a physician. On the other hand, some nurses who pursue advanced nursing practice degrees earn even greater autonomy. Nurse Practitioners, for example, are able to practice much the same way as doctors: they may run a practice, form medical diagnoses, and prescribe medications.

How Do Civilians Become RNs?

State nursing boards specifiy educational and licensing requirements, but in general RNs must graduate from a board-approved associate or bachelor's degree program before sitting for the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).

Many schools also offer fast-track programs for RNs with an associate degree to earn their bachelor's, as well as for graduates of other non-nursing bachelor's programs to earn a second bachelor's degree, or even a master's, as nurses. There are other, less common pathways as well, such as hospital-affiliated diploma programs (nearly extinct) and doctoral entry programs.

Military Requirements and Training

All military RNs are commissioned officers, so unfortunately, RNs with an associate degree are disqualified. Any civilian who's earned a bachelor's degree in nursing and received an RN license in their state can apply for a direct commission. RNs, doctors, lawyers, and other licensed professionals in this pipeline receive a somewhat abridged version of officer candidate training in order to orient them to the military culture and their role in it as officers.

There are also programs that help civilians offset the cost of nursing education in exchange for serving once they graduate. The Navy, for example, offers a full tuition ride (unless you can find a school that charges over $180,000) to high school students going into a nursing program, or up to $34,000 to current student nurses through their Nurse Candidate Program. The Air Force also has a scholarship program for health professionals and each branch may offer college loan repayment incentives.

Scholarship programs are generally only for civilians aiming for a military career as RNs, but what about those already serving in the military? As with other college degrees, those who serve can receive tuition assistance or use their GI Bill benefits to pay for off-duty courses in an accredited nursing program.

Completing a bachelor degree while serving as a full-time enlistee is no breeze, but depending on your level of experience in an enlisted healthcare specialty and the number of credits your college is willing to grant for military experience, you may be able to make your journey that much easier.

Education in the Army and Navy

The American Council on Education (ACE) recommends college credits for experience and training in the military (except the Air Force, for some reason.) With a transcript issued by your branch of service, you may be able to knock out some of the common prerequisites for a nursing program, such as general education requirements and anatomy/physiology. But bear in mind the ACE has no authority to actually award credits. It's still up to each individual college how much transfer credit you'll receive for your military experience.

The examples below are based on recommendations on the ACE website, and may vary with level of education and experience:

  • Army Health Care Specialists (MOS 68W), depending on level of experience, might receive three semester hours each for anatomy and physiology, nursing fundamentals, and emergency medical procedures, and 10 for clinical experience.
  • Navy Corpsmen who've reached at least E-4 may be eligible for three semester hours of nursing fundamentals, physical assessment, and health information management. Higher ratings get even more recommended credits, such as pharmacology and medical-surgical nursing.

Education in the Air Force

Airmen enlisted in the Physical Medicine or Aerospace Medical fields may be eligible for credits for their training and experience awarded by the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF). By combining that with resident and distance-learning courses, airmen can earn an associate degree in the CCAF Allied Health Sciences Program. While not a nursing-specific degree, this may help fulfill some of the requirements to earn a BS in nursing, since it includes a variety of liberal arts credits and electives in biology, chemistry, psychology and pharmacology.

Certifications

According to Navy's Credentialing Opportunities On Line (COOL), Corpsmen may be eligible to receive Navy funding to pay for the NCLEX-RN exam. Remember, though, that to receive an RN license through this exam, you'll still need to earn your bachelor's degree in nursing through appropriate off-duty education.

Unlike the Navy, the Army COOL site doesn't indicate any funding available for medics to take the NCLEX-RN, but there are a number of certifications at less advanced levels of medical care and nursing that may be paid for using the GI Bill. While pursuing a nursing education, it obviously couldn't hurt to get licenses in some of these specialties -– Emergency Medical Technician, Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurse, or Certified Nurse Technician -– which can provide you with additional experience, earning power, and a vocational safety net should you choose to leave the service and complete your nursing education as a civilian.

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