Hi all, and welcome to the long-awaited second Travel Career Snapshot! Today, we’re going to be exploring the life of a military nurse who travels all over the world serving her country and caring for others.
For those who are unfamiliar, in this series I share the stories of real-life people who have pursued careers that integrally involve travel. While Full Life, Full Passport continues to focus on how you can make amazing vacations happen without dramatically changing your life, I also recognize that there are many of you who may be inspired by people who have made career decisions that facilitate a more travel-heavy lifestyle. It’s also just fun to read about their adventures!
(Read more about the vision behind the series here.)
To that end, I’m really excited to share today’s interview with you! Ellen is a Lieutenant in the United States Navy who has spent the past seven years serving as a nurse all around the world.
She also happens to be my second cousin! Our incredible great-grandmother lived to be just shy of 107 years old, and as a result, I got to know members of my extended family – including Ellen – in a way that I might not have otherwise.
It’s been such fun following Ellen’s adventures as she has traveled the globe in service to her country. I’m grateful that she was willing to be interviewed for this series so that I could learn more about her life and career. I hope that you find her story as compelling and inspiring as I did!
Hi, Ellen! Thanks so much for sharing your story. Let’s start by learning a little bit about you!
Hi! Thank you for having me. I was born and raised in Lebanon, Pennsylvania (home of the Pennsylvania Dutch staple, Lebanon bologna). I studied nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and commissioned as a Navy Nurse Corps Officer through the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (NROTC) program. I just completed seven years of active duty service as a Navy nurse and will soon be transitioning out of the Navy to civilian life.
Could you tell us a bit about the job itself?
I had a lot of different assignments over the years, but the tour I just completed with a Marine battalion was the most unique. I was the emergency room nurse for a shock trauma platoon. We deployed for six months onboard a ship in the Mediterranean Sea. My job was to train and prepare our team for medical emergencies on the ship. I was also trained to serve as a nurse on helicopters transporting patients from shore to the ship.
What led to you choose this particular career path, and which came first, your decision to join the military or to become a nurse?
Believe it or not, though I was always interested in pursuing something in the medical field, I chose both nursing and the military on a whim. My cousin was at the United States Military Academy when I was a senior in high school. After visiting him, I became interested in joining the military. I applied for and received the NROTC nursing scholarship and it seemed like an exciting career that would offer unique experiences and travel opportunities!
What steps and education were involved in entering your field?
I earned my Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree and became a registered nurse (RN) after passing the licensure exam. During my four years on ROTC scholarship at Penn, I was required to attend leadership classes and physical training throughout the week.
During two college summers, I participated in additional training on a Navy ship in the Pacific and in a naval hospital in Jacksonville, Florida. It was the training “cruise” after my freshman year that excited me about the incredible travel opportunities my Navy career might offer. I spent a month earning my “sea legs” working in the ship’s medical department, but I also was exposed to the various jobs throughout all the different areas of the ship.
One evening, I rode along in a small utility boat to pick up Navy construction workers who had built a schoolhouse for a village on one of the Philippine islands. It was so cool to see the villagers wave them off and show their appreciation for the work they had done. After that, I hoped for the opportunity to go on a Navy humanitarian mission as a nurse, though unfortunately I never got the chance to deploy on a hospital ship ☹
That summer, the ship also had port calls in Thailand and Singapore. In Thailand, we had free time off the ship where I rode an elephant and visited the royal palace in Bangkok. We only had time to get dinner in Singapore before flying back to the States, so I only briefly experienced its modern architecture, immaculately clean sidewalks, and fashion-forward culture. Little did I know, I would meet a friend from Singapore during nursing school and have her as a special tour guide several years later. (More on that to follow!)
After graduating from nursing school, I received my commission as a Navy officer and was obligated to serve four years of active duty. I was still having fun after those four years, so I decided to stay longer than my service obligation!
What does your workday look like? I’m sure it has varied a lot over your career!
Over my seven years in the Navy, the pace of the job and my specific duties definitely changed depending on the environment. I have worked stateside in a Wounded Warrior hospital unit taking care of patients coming out of surgery, as well as in an emergency department overseas in Guam. For those duties, I did shift work just like nurses do in civilian hospitals.
My last tour (the one with the Marine battalion) was quite different from hospital shift work. During those two years, I attended various training courses for trauma care and flight nursing. While preparing for deployment, we spent time in the desert in Yuma, Arizona. For a month I was living in a tent, sleeping on a cot, and eating prepackaged meals. While in Yuma, our Shock Trauma Platoon provided medical support for the Marines’ training exercises while we practiced setting up a mobile emergency room and drilled on trauma care.
Later, during the ship exercises and the at-sea deployment, I was sent on helicopter flights to practice bringing a patient onto the ship for resuscitative surgery. There was quite a lot of coordination and logistics involved in those mission rehearsals! I loved flying, and experiencing a bird’s eye view of the ship in the middle of the huge ocean was awesome.
What are some of your favorite aspects of your job?
I love being a nurse! The nursing profession gives me the opportunity to directly serve others. Nurses have intimate access into a patient’s life and play a crucial role in helping them reach recovery. You never know what will come through the doors of the emergency department, and you are never bored by the variety of patient conditions you see.
As for being a military nurse, I have been able to plug that nursing role into unique environments (like the desert and helicopters) and have had really valuable training experiences that civilian nurses will never receive. Also, I never would have visited so many different countries if it were not for my military career!
I have encountered such a variety of people from all walks of life in the military, many who have become like family. Through nursing care and military experiences, I have had formed indescribable bonds with both patients and coworkers.
Are there any downsides?
Sure, there are downsides. The Navy re-locates you every couple of years, and while the transient lifestyle can be a lot of fun, just like Emily mentioned in her post, being on the move can be tiring. The deployment training schedule for my last job was crazy; over the last two years, I was away from my home station for a total of ten months. Although the job is exciting, there’s also the regret of what you are missing by being away from loved ones. I have missed weddings and funerals because I was living overseas or was deployed on a ship. However, my Navy assignments also have allowed me to see new places, meet interesting people, and have amazing experiences.
Also, sometimes your schedule changes at the last minute, and with so much uncertainty you cannot commit to future plans because you never know if you will be gone. I planned to spend last Thanksgiving in Texas visiting my brother, but our deployment exercise was rescheduled due to hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico. So, instead, my Thanksgiving was spent on the ship!
Another slight annoyance was that during the Mediterranean Sea ship deployment the process for getting off the ship during port visits was very structured. We had curfews, had to sign in and out with a “liberty buddy,” and were restricted to visiting certain areas for accountability and safety purposes. On deployment, military staff belongs to the ship and do not have the freedom to make their own travel itinerary! However, despite that, deployment still allowed me to see new and beautiful cities like Rome and Athens.
What has made you successful as a military nurse?
Flexibility and a positive attitude! I had to accept that my schedule was unpredictable and that while I was able to make requests, my duties were ultimately assigned to meet the needs of the Navy. I was lucky to have been placed in all the jobs that I wanted.
The military life also taught me how to make the best out of sometimes very frustrating or uncomfortable circumstances. For example, even though I did not have the most comfortable living accommodations in the field and on the ship (aka the “floating prison”), there were perks like breathtaking sunrise views, getting to fly in helicopters, hitting golf balls off the ship flight deck, and the camaraderie with all the people onboard.
A sense of humor helps, too!
What are one or two things someone should know before committing to your career, either nursing or joining the military?
Being in a Navy operational nursing job is not always as sexy or exciting as it might appear. For example, even though I was able to do some cool training helicopter flights, there was also a lot of downtime on deployment which made me feel purposeless and unfulfilled. As an ER nurse, I was there to be ready for the worst-case scenario. Although it’s great when I do not have to do my job because it means no one is severely hurt or sick, being isolated for six months and not having the ability to use my nursing skills regularly made me feel restless.
Have you always had a love for travel, or was that just a fortuitous side benefit of your job?
Even though I did not grow up vacationing internationally, my family hosted ten different exchange students during my childhood and school-aged years. As each student was studying in the U.S. and living in our house, my family learned about their cultures and traditions. For example, I remember being in second grade and putting my shoes out with our German exchange student for St. Nicolas to bring us Christmas presents. Later, we hosted a student from Japan who performed a traditional tea ceremony.
I think this exposure to different cultures made me become open-minded and interested in seeing more places on my own.
Where all have you visited through your deployments? Do you have any favorites?
During my NROTC college summer training “cruise,” I visited the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore.
Next, I was stationed for two years on the tiny island of Guam. I absolutely loved it there. When I was not working nursing shifts in the emergency department, my friends and I were always adventuring. All in one day, I might have gone scuba diving in the morning (I completed my scuba certification while there), hiking or “
Not only did I enjoy island life, but it was fairly easy to travel from Guam to Asia for vacation (and with shorter flights than from the US!). As a result, during that deployment I traveled to Tokyo, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Singapore (again!), Malaysia, and South Korea.
On my most recent Mediterranean Sea deployment with the Marines, we visited Italy, Greece, and Spain during ship port calls.
Is there an exciting, provocative, or funny story from your work or travels that you’d like to share?
When in nursing school, I met and became friends with a visiting student from Singapore. She and I did a clinical nursing rotation together and discovered that we shared an interest in fitness, the outdoors, and food! Even though she only spent a semester studying at Penn, we remained penpals and coincidently both became ER nurses.
Fast forward about five years: I was living in Guam and decided to go visit her! I spent about ten days in Singapore, and she was the best tour guide. While she showed me the touristy spots like the Gardens by the Bay and Sentosa Island, what was even more fun was having her take me to her favorite dim sum restaurants and shopping spots, meeting her family, and touring the hospital where she worked.
Being stationed in Guam made it easier to hop over to Asia and helped me reconnect with a fellow adventurer, food-lover, and nursing buddy who has since also come to visit me in North Carolina. It is exciting to have a friend from across the globe and realize how small the world is.
What is your favorite or most trusted piece of travel advice?
Plan for spontaneity! While I love having a general plan for my trips, I think sometimes the coolest experiences end up being the things you did not plan. During one of my weekend trips to Tokyo from Guam, my friend and I randomly ended up attending a sumo wrestling tournament because we walked by the stadium, saw a few sumo wrestlers walking outside, and decided to buy tickets! It was the highlight of our trip.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you, your career, or any of the places you’ve been?
My Navy nursing career was an adventure I would not trade for anything! Despite having to follow some silly military rules, living in less than ideal conditions in a tent or on a ship, and missing out on significant events at home because I was a 20-hour plane ride away, I had so many rich opportunities for personal growth. I met lifelong friends, took care of wounded war heroes, lived on a tropical island, flew in helicopters, visited Asia and Europe, and found my passion for emergency and trauma nursing.
I have just closed the chapter of my military life and will be attending graduate school to become a Nurse Practitioner, but I am so grateful for my Navy nursing experiences.
Thanks for your time, Ellen, and an even bigger thank you for your service!
**All photos were provided by Ellen.
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This Travel Career Snapshot about being a military nurse was first posted on September 18,
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