Each Veterans Day I have a renewed sense of patriotism and pride in having served my country. I served eight years in the United States Air Force and left the military in 1999 as a captain. Today I believe my decision to serve in the military was one of the best decisions I ever made. But truth be told, the decision to enlist was a bit whimsical.
As graduation from The University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing approached, I was more than prepared to enter the workforce but lacked the self-confidence to believe in my skills. Austin was saturated with nurses, and finding a job in my desired specialty — the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) — would be difficult, if not impossible. The thought of moving to a new location and starting over was daunting, so I called a U.S. Air Force recruiter and left a message requesting more information on the nursing program.
To my surprise, no one returned my calls — even after three messages — so I drove to the local recruiting station. I sat with a number of young boys who did not look old enough to enlist. I remember thinking, “What am I doing here? Am I crazy? The military can’t be for me!”
Just as I stood up to walk out, I was called for an interview. I have to give the recruiter credit, he made the military for medical people sound like Club Med with his many promises: The military would move me and provide a housing allowance; I could live off base, receive 30 days paid leave, free travel via “Space-A” on military aircraft, the chance to travel internationally; I’d get free health care and opportunities for additional education. The list seemed endless.
Most importantly, I could enlist as an officer with officer pay grade status. The salary was competitive with beginning hospital packages and the additional perks were enticing. Towards the end of our conversation I wanted to blurt out, “Where do I sign up?”
Feeling a bit overwhelmed by all I had learned, however, I decided to go home and sift through the information. After all, I had not even talked this idea over with my parents. Of four children, I was the only daughter and knew for certain my mom would require some gentle convincing. Yet, I walked out of the recruiting office with a sense of purpose, direction and excitement.
In reality the military is by no means Club Med. The nursing program was laborious and challenging. Initially I was not placed in a NICU specialty, and although I received 30 days of vacation each year, it was not necessarily at the times I requested. I missed funerals and family weddings because I was essential active duty personnel and could not leave my duty responsibilities.
I had to work days and then nights on an alternating schedule every six weeks, which was a difficult lifestyle to adjust to. I had to learn military jargon and acronyms as well as military weaponry and be taught how to shoot a gun. I had to dress in full uniform each and every day and follow the rank protocols and chain of command when working and submit to annual physical tests.
No, certainly the military was not Club Med, but the experience was invaluable. Getting saluted each day as I entered the base was definitely a great way to start a shift. While there, I worked with the best medical staff in the world. We shared a bond and sense of camaraderie and teamwork that is unparalleled in the civilian world. I was exposed to medical challenges and cases that are rarely seen and given responsibilities far above my pay-grade.
I have since left the military and transitioned to the civilian job force, but it is my personal mission each year to attend my daughters’ school’s Veterans Day program in full dress uniform to show the boys and girls that women can serve key roles in the military, whether as a nurse or a soldier, airman or marine. More times than not, I am the only female sitting with a group of men.
I was fortunate never to be deployed or see the battlefield, but that doesn’t make my service any less meaningful. I was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country, and that realization changed me as a person. Every member of the military is a key piece to our success as a nation, whether male or female. The military was a crucial part of my nursing career and gave me the confidence, knowledge and ability to be the best nurse possible.
Interested in learning more about a military nursing career? I encourage you to talk with a medical military recruiter. You may be surprised to find this career choice is designed for you. Afraid to take that leap? Feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns.
—retired USAF Capt. Shannan Needleman