Experience Counts

Military veterans take a fast track to nursing careers
By Rosalind Fournier • Photo by Steve Wood
Illustration depicting military veterans becoming nurses
Military veterans take a fast track to nursing careers
By Rosalind Fournier • Photo by Steve Wood

“Can you imagine how frustrating it would be,” asks Rhonda McLain, R.N., Ph.D., “to have dealt with trauma in a war zone, using very advanced skills, then come into a nursing program and learn how to take blood pressure again?”

McLain, assistant dean of undergraduate and prelicensure programs in the UAB School of Nursing, understands the challenges military veterans often face in transitioning back into civilian life. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans in all career fields hovered around 10 percent in 2013. That stems, in part, from employers and universities struggling to translate military experience into credits or job placements, lengthening the time it takes for veterans to join the workforce.

UAB’s Veterans Career Advancement in Nursing (Veterans CAN!) program offers a route around those frustrations. Funded by a grant from the Health Research Services Administration, the program builds upon veterans’ training and experience to help them earn a nursing degree and transition into a professional nursing career.

Another goal is to prepare nurses who might help fill the need for high-quality medical care in underserved rural areas. “A lot of veterans in Alabama live in rural communities, and we hope many will choose to go back and help take care of their communities,” McLain says.

Photo of nursing student Katelyn Camacho YauKatelyn Camacho Yau

Unique Credentials

Veterans CAN!—the only program of its kind in Alabama—launched in September 2013. Since then, the School of Nursing has been recruiting veterans—or those leaving the service soon—who want to enter the field and who meet the rigorous qualifications of all UAB nursing students. Some of the new prospects have credentials that might seem surprising to the traditional nursing-school applicant, however.

Katelyn Camacho Yau, a native of Corinth, Mississippi, earned her associate’s degree in radiology before entering the U.S. Air Force, which stationed her in Germany in 2010. “They didn’t need radiology techs at the time; they needed aircraft mechanics, so that’s what I did,” Camacho Yau explains. She didn’t want to stay in the aircraft field long-term, but it gave her time to refocus her goals. She thought about how she helped to care for her terminally ill grandmother. “I realized I loved caring for patients and the nursing side of medicine,” Camacho Yau says.  

She was accepted into Veterans CAN! while still in Germany. Her first requirement was to complete a shadowing program at Germany’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, where she worked in labor and delivery. “I got to help deliver a baby when I was shadowing, which was really cool,” notes Camacho Yau, who hopes to return to the military as a registered nurse.  

Camacho Yau arrived at UAB last July to begin working on her degree. Between her community college credits and military experience, she’s now a junior nursing student. “Putting into place those hours that a lot of nursing schools don’t even count—including tons of hours upgrading our training in the military—without feeling behind is amazing,” she says.

McLain agrees. “This is a way to say, ‘We know you have unique experiences, and we can give you credit for those experiences.’”

Japan to Birmingham

Another student, Byron Elliott, recently transitioned from active duty in the U.S. Navy to the Reserves; he came to Birmingham in the summer of 2015 after completing general coursework for the School of Nursing online while he was in Japan. “I’ve always been drawn to nursing because I’m all about hands-on care,” he explains. In the Navy he has worked as an air crewman, which often involves caring for trauma patients in transport. “You learn on the job,” says Elliott, who is from Indianapolis and joined the military in 2006. “You have to be flexible and think on your feet.”

He says he may work toward becoming a nurse practitioner. “I’m pretty aggressive about the career I want to have,” Elliot says, “and I believe this program can get me there.”

• Learn more about the Veterans CAN! program and apply for admission.

• Discover other UAB programs and partnerships benefiting military veterans and others who serve.

• Give something and change everything for students pursuing careers in nursing.

Published April 2015
Updated November 2015