Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Military vets with medical skills find it difficult to get civilian health care jobs


Pandemic has been straining the U.S. health care system. There's a short supply of nurses and a high rate of burnout after dealing with the crisis for nearly two years. There is what would seem like a natural pool of labor to draw from though - military veterans with medical training. But as Quil Lawrence reports, red tape is keeping many vets from turning their military experience into a civilian health care job.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Giving lifesaving aid under stressful conditions is the job description for a combat medic like Tim Hobbs.

TIM HOBBS: I did two deployments to Afghanistan, two to Iraq and then I did a humanitarian mission in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

LAWRENCE: Hobbs later supervised military medical clinics, another much-needed skill. When he got out, his 20 years of army credentials didn't translate.

HOBBS: Realistically, I'm only qualified to drive an ambulance, administer oxygen and assist with either oral glucose or a patient taking nitroglycerin. That's it.

LAWRENCE: Which he thinks is nuts, especially with a pandemic on.

HOBBS: I understand that there's legal issues. There's all sorts of red tape that I'm probably, you know, not aware of. But I do think it's pretty crazy.

LAWRENCE: Veterans have been raising this issue for years. Dan Goldenberg, with the Call of Duty Endowment, says a study this month found that it's still a problem.

DAN GOLDENBERG: Every medic and hospital corpsman gets more than $100,000 worth of initial training in the field and then years of experience. And yet when they leave the service, in many cases, they can't ride in the back of an ambulance. And that's just a huge lost opportunity.

LAWRENCE: The study took the example of EMTs - emergency medical technicians. Any military medic should be already qualified for the job. But Goldenberg says nationwide, only six states make it easy for medics to become EMTs. Ten states make them start school all over again, including California, which has the most veterans in the country.

GOLDENBERG: But, you know, we estimate that somewhere between 30- and 50,000 former medics and corpsman are out there. And, you know, they wanted to work in the field, and they haven't been able to get the access, which was kind of shocking to us, especially in the midst of a pandemic.

LAWRENCE: Goldenberg says 22 states have perfectly good rules to accept military credentials, but they don't communicate it clearly.

GOLDENBERG: So it's very unclear to interested medics or corpsman how to become certified as an EMT. They have to dig a lot. It becomes a research project when it should just be easy.

LAWRENCE: Like it should have been easy for people like Chris Brasel, who was a medic in Afghanistan, where he treated everything from dehydration to blast wounds.

CHRIS BRASEL: So it kind of ran all - the gamut of it. I wouldn't say anything too crazy. You know, I'm not Rambo or anything or - just take care of my guys. That was my big thing.

LAWRENCE: When he got out, Brasel was keen to become a physician's assistant, a job popular with vets back in the Vietnam era. But he had a young family and no time to start from scratch.

BRASEL: Zero percent of my practical experiences would have translated to any type of credit. It was just kind of a insurmountable wall, you know, of training that was required for that.

LAWRENCE: Brasel says vets like him are an untapped resource.

BRASEL: So I think in general, most of us would jump at some sort of opportunity like that if there was an established, easy path or even, you know, if it was incentivized. A lot of people that choose the medical profession, I think, in the military, like, they want to help people, right?

LAWRENCE: And it's not just medics. There's also a gap between military and civilian credentials in fields like supply chain management, communications and truck driving, all of which are in high demand right now.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARLEY CARROLL'S "SEVEN CROWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.