Can you think of two jobs that are stereotypically more opposite than a nurse and a soldier?
When one pictures a nurse, they likely think a delicate, caring maiden clad in white, dabbing the feverish forehead of an ailing patient. When imagining a soldier, the image changes from a compassionate, gentle caregiver to a robust, steely (and often violent) male bodybuilder. These, of course, are stereotypes, and upon further consideration, the subject’s field of imagery will expand to include males and females in scrubs as nurses, and for soldiers, various other careers besides the G.I. Joe, such as intelligence or logistics.
But, however opposite these two career paths may seem, there is a small percentage of individuals in the nation who have chosen to be both soldier and nurse.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, across the country, Army and Air Force National Guard nurses have been seen answering the call of their communities. Field hospitals, testing sites and medical aid missions have been operating daily — it is the soldier nurse who takes the forefront on this unique and dangerous battleground.
For the past four years, I have served as a field artillery cannon crewmember in the Tennessee Army National Guard; and, for the past seven years, I have worked as a registered nurse in the civilian world.
As an enlisted soldier, I have shot howitzers overseas, spent many sweaty and sleepless weeks in the field, rappelled out of a Black Hawk helicopter and loved (almost) every minute of the adventure.
As a registered nurse, I have cared for drug-addicted newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit, been in more sweaty and scary codes than I can count, taught women who don’t speak English how to breastfeed and held the hands of patients as they slipped away with no family there.
These two separate experiences, being a nurse and being a soldier, have provided me with a unique perspective in which I can view and analyze both careers objectively as an outsider, but also as an insider. The stark differences between the two callings, though obvious, are completely overpowered by the similarities between nursing and soldiering, the amount of and degree to which are staggering. The core similarities of the two seemingly polarizing vocations lie in the values and purpose the individual lives by and in which excellence each career demands.
One of the first things nurses learn to forget about is themselves. Between caring for their patients, answering to doctors, coordinating with social work, reassuring family members, and putting out fires everywhere they turn they forget to eat lunch. They forget to take a break.
They forget to use the restroom. During a shift, they morph into a giver of everything possible: medicine, support, answers, ice water, comfort, linens, food, treatment and themselves. I have seen nurses go an entire 12-hour shift without eating, toting their full lunchbox to their cars at night in a tired and numb daze.
The same selflessness can be seen in the American soldier. One of the core values instilled in every private during Army basic combat training is selfless service.
The vitality of this core value is evident every day if one has the eyes to see it: in team leaders caring for their squad, making sure their guys eat before they do and offering to take the next watch so the other soldier can get sleep. These seemingly small instances of self-forgetting are the building blocks that form what history will never forget: Soldiers volunteering for impossibly dangerous missions, sprinting headfirst into a firefight or jumping on a grenade to save their buddies.
Getting to the point of forgetting oneself and completely giving everything to others, whether they be patients or soldiers, is a unique and surreal place to be in, and it’s where soldiers and nurses both live when they show up to work.
In both professions, versatility goes together with selflessness. If there is one thing that stands out in a great nurse, it is an ability to react and adapt to unexpected situations at any given moment. Cardiac arrest, surprise admission, emergency C-section, unknown virus … every hour of their shift, nurses are reassessing and reworking their strategy regarding how to best care for their patients. Juggling new medicine orders, admitting and discharging patients, rushing to help a code in another room, all while thinking ahead to anticipate what’s coming next, nurses must be constantly vigilant and versatile. That same flexibility easily can be observed in a soldier.
A competent and dependable soldier is one who adapts, the true essence of battle readiness. Any military training scenario is based around a soldier or unit’s ability to adjust and succeed. When in the field, troops are constantly adapting to inclement weather, troubleshooting equipment, terrain surprises, vehicle malfunctions, and new technology — all the while pursuing the most efficient and effective way to accomplish the mission. If a soldier was dropped into a hospital scenario, and a nurse placed in a military exercise, it wouldn’t take long for either to roll up their sleeves and start assessing where they could adapt and help those around them.
Reflecting on these similarities led me to a surprise realization: soldiers and nurses respectively, are without a doubt the most resourceful people I know. Their versatility and ability to think on their feet in a tight situation has given them a creative and fascinating ability to use anything to get the job done.
Soldiers are subject-matter experts at making tasks more effective and efficient. If the tank breaks down and the tools are not available, they use what they have on hand, and often, the tank is rolling soon. They jerry-rig their body armor and rucks to make them the lightest and most effective in preparation for the unknown and are creative in using whatever terrain they find themselves in to set their unit up for success.
Nurses follow suit.
Whether it’s sticking an EKG tab on the call bell for a blind patient, or making the perfect size ice pack out of a glove, gauze, and tape — nurses figure out what works best with the supplies they have and get to work. Images of resourceful nurses adapting to the COVID-19 induced PPE shortage depicted creative face coverings and plastic packaging for gowns. This crisis has not scared nurses into stepping back, they have stepped up and done what they have always done: adapt and overcome.
Every American has been affected by the disruption and chaos caused by COVID-19. Many will look back upon this time and remember financial instability, quarantining at home or too many walks outside. They will remember the essential workers staffing the grocery stores and gas stations, doctors working tirelessly and the closure of so many businesses.
It is my hope that people also remember those unique nurses who answered the call of their country — the nurse soldiers who laced up their boots and grabbed their stethoscopes, not knowing what awaited them, yet running toward the fight anyway.
History books may not highlight the selflessness, adaptability and resiliency of our military nurses, but as both a soldier and a nurse watching history unfold, it is my prayer that the ripple effects of these humble and giving heroes will echo in the future generations.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.