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Pay Incentives Help Military Avoid Nursing Shortage

Sara Moore - American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 20, 2009 - The Army, Navy and Air Force nurse corps are highly trained, capable and critical to the wartime mission of each service, the corps' leaders told a congressional committee this week.

The Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee heard testimony March 18 from the services' nursing chiefs. Each reported a healthy force that plays a vital role in maintaining the health of America's servicemembers and saving lives on the battlefield.

Despite a nationwide nursing shortage, all three services have had success in recruiting and retaining nurses, the leaders said. New incentive and training programs will help boost those numbers even further, they noted.

The active-duty Navy nurse corps is staffed at 96 percent and made its accession goal for the third year in a row, Navy Rear Adm. Christine M. Bruzek-Kohler, director of the Navy nurse corps, told the committee. The Reserve component met 107 percent of its recruiting goal in 2008, she noted, but deficits from the three previous years have led to challenges filling junior officer billets.

Several new initiatives, including incentive pay for critical specialties, targeted recruiting efforts, and professional development programs for federal civilian nurses will help maintain its success and bolster retention, Bruzek-Kohler said.

"Built upon a solid foundation of clinical skills, Navy nursing encompasses clinical specialization via advanced education and certification, operational readiness, and leadership development," she said. "When combined, these yield clinical nursing leaders and future executives for Navy medicine who are business savvy, operationally experienced, and clinically adept. These nurses can and will impressively lead our people and organization into the future."

After establishing a brigade in 2007 to focus on recruiting nurses, the Army last year exceeded its goal for active-duty nurses by 147 percent, Army Maj. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho, chief of the Army nurse corps, told the committee. Incentive pay also has helped to encourage nurses to stay on active duty, she said.

The Army deploys 400 to 500 nurses a year, so maintaining a robust force focused on specialties like emergency care and intensive care unit skills is important, Horoho said.

"Army nurses are a corps of seasoned combat veterans that are highly trained, highly skilled and highly committed," she said.

The Air Force also has had success in recruiting nurses, particularly novice nurses, Air Force Maj. Gen. Kimberly A. Siniscalchi, chief of the Air Force nurse corps, told the committee. Accession bonuses, loan repayment programs, scholarships and incentive special pay programs will help the Air Force continue its recruiting success and boost retention, where it has been lacking, she said.

"The key to successful peacetime and wartime nursing operations is a robust nursing force, a force with the right numbers, right experience and the right skills," Siniscalchi said. "Recruiting experienced nurses continues to be a significant challenge."

All three leaders praised their nurses' performance during deployments. Bruzek-Kohler noted the many Navy nurses she has spoken to after they return from deployments who talk about how positive their experiences were and express a desire to go back.

"A maturity, sense of personal fulfillment, and confidence of having done something that their peers have not done is readily identifiable among my nurses returning from these unique deployments," she said. "From the way they act, talk and perhaps even the swagger in their walk, one can tell that they have returned with experiences far and ... many, accomplished goals unrealized in the past, and matured in a way years could never have provided."

Through their many deployment experiences, Army nurses have been able to apply lessons learned and improve services, Horoho said. She cited the example of flight nurses who have decreased the incidents of hypothermia among medical evacuation patients from 20 percent to fewer than 5 percent.

"On my recent trip to Iraq, I was absolutely humbled to see the level of care that is provided to not only our servicemembers, but to coalition forces, contractors and the detainee populations that we served," Horoho said.

Army nurses are partnering with Iraqi nurse leaders to rebuild their profession, she noted, and the nurse case management program at Camp Cropper and Camp Bucca has provided specialized care for more then 1,000 detainees.

Siniscalchi recalled several stories of heroics by Air Force nurses, including one who treated a colleague's son and was able to let him speak to his father on the phone before undergoing surgery, and the delivery of the first Afghan baby at Craig Joint Theater Hospital in Bagram, Afghanistan.

"Our warriors and their families deserve the best possible care we can provide," she said. "It is the nurses' touch, compassion and care that often wills a patient to recovery or softens the transition from life to death. There has never been a better time to be a member of this great Air Force nursing team."

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