Lorinda Stahley’s job as an emergency room nurse in Florida is a far cry from her old military specialty, directing helicopters and keeping meticulous records from her vantage point in the flight tower as an air traffic controller.
At least — it used to be. But when she arrived at the AdventHealth Orlando hospital in 2014, she noticed patients were getting stuck in the waiting room because there wasn’t a good system for notifying the medical staff when there was an empty bed. So, as director of nursing for emergency service and observation medicine, she made one. She set up a control room and put someone in charge of directing where patients should go, an approach that’s dramatically cut down on patient wait times.
She calls the system “bed traffic control.”
“As we were building this,” Stahley said, “I was like, ‘Huh. This reminds me of being in the military. It reminds me of the air traffic control space and the things that we would do with this person being responsible for everyone going in and everyone going out.’”
That’s just one way Stahley uses her military-learned skills every day on the job, though it’s been 30 years since she left active duty. And it’s a good example of how other former service members interested in the medical field — even those without a background in health care — can still put their military-learned skills to good use.
Know what you bring to the table
When asked what advice she would give to veterans who want to transition into the health care field, Stahley said it’s important for them to understand how their military training has already prepared them for a career in the industry.
“There are just so many things that you don’t even realize how it can transition,” she said. “I think those leadership skills that just become innate for people in the military, it’s very needed in the health-care field, and it’s very important.”
Nurses and other medical professionals ― much like service members — have to be strong, independent leaders who can think and move quickly to make important decisions, she said.
“When you are in health care, it is such an important space, and that accountability and responsibility will take you so far,” Stahley said. “It is everything.”
Use your benefits (You earned them)
Additionally, many veterans leave the military with a robust education benefit known as the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which pays up to the full amount of 36 months of tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance and a book stipend.
It can also be used toward licenses and certifications, which may be all some veterans need to break into the civilian health care industry, whether or not they already have military medical training. Many health care positions, such as phlebotomist or medical secretary, don’t require much formal education as compared to other careers in the industry.
If you do need a degree, however, you may want to look into the Department of Veterans Affairs’ new scholarship for veterans enrolled in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, degree programs, including health care. Grantees can get up to another nine months of education benefits, since many of these fields require additional training beyond the length of a typical bachelor’s degree.
Army veteran Tiffany Baker-Strothkamp, the transition and support coordinator for student veterans at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, said many schools offer accelerated degree programs or hybrid online and in-person classes that often appeal to military-connected students. These can be an especially good fit for those with a medical background, such as a trained military nurse, who wants to become a nurse practitioner as a civilian, she said.
University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus currently has about 400 students who are veterans or still serving on active duty and is one of the top-ranked schools in the Military Times Best for Vets: Colleges 2019 rankings.
Chances are you won’t be the only veteran in your degree program. According to a 2017 study by the nonprofit advocacy group Student Veterans of America, since 2009, the Post-9/11 GI Bill has helped more than 37,000 student veterans earn degrees in health care, the third most popular area of study after business and STEM.
Do your research
“When I have students that come in and the first thing out of their mouth is, ‘Hey, I want to do something in the health care field, the first thing I ask them is, one, ‘How long are you wanting to be in school,’ and then ‘How long are you wanting to work in this profession?’” Baker-Strothkamp said. “Figure out where you want to go and then you have to back-plan.”
If you need a new degree to help you get there, look for schools that have a proven track record of graduating students and talk to other veterans in the program, she said.
Research is also key when choosing a specialty to pursue, especially because there are so many to choose from.
Dr. James Sutherland, a post-9/11 Army veteran who is now a surgeon for AdventHealth, said to start by searching the types of specialties that are out there and “ask yourself, can I be good at this? Is this something that I can or want to do for the rest of my life? You have to remember that this is a lifelong choice and commitment.”
As a recruiter, Peal has met doctors who wished they’d picked a different specialty because the level of patient interaction wasn’t what they had expected. So it’s better to figure that out before you finish med school.
“Shadow someone to get a day-in-the-life of that professional,” he said. “Get a sense if it’s something they can actually see themselves doing. Once they’ve had a taste of what it’s like to be in that profession, that can kind of sharpen what their focus may be.”
Renetta Bradford, national veteran employment program manager for VA, said job fairs can also provide a good opportunity to meet people in the field. And the good news is many career events for transitioning service members and veterans are free.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The VA has a lot of resources to help veterans looking for their next career, including Bradford’s Veteran Employment Services Office and a jobs site specifically for openings within the VA health care system.
It’s also important to get a mentor. That’s one of Baker-Strothkamp’s biggest tips for the student veterans she counsels; mentors can often help you make connections in the field that could mean the difference between starting in an entry level or middle management position, she said.
Here’s the good news about a career in health care: It won’t be too hard to find a job, and you can bet on having good job security once you land someplace.
“This is probably the most secure position to be in because there’s always opportunities wherever you go,” Peal said.
The VA itself currently has about 40,000 openings in health care and has various programs in place to attract veterans to those jobs, including a hiring initiative for transitioning service members. Certain programs, such as the VA Intermediate Care Technician Program, are specifically intended to build on military skills for former corpsmen and medics.
“We have all systems, all occupations to provide the best care that we possibly can to veterans,” Peal said.
So whether you want to become a doctor, nurse, lab tech, mental health professional — you name it — there’s likely an opportunity for you at VA.
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.