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Best job in military health? For these men, it’s nursing

Nurse Manny Santiago (right) with retired Marine Corps Sgt. Carlos Evans in October at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Santiago said he “had the privilege of taking care of this young man” after Evans stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in May 2010 during his fourth combat deployment. The two men discovered they’re both from the same hometown in Puerto Rico. (Courtesy photo) Nurse Manny Santiago (right) with retired Marine Corps Sgt. Carlos Evans in October at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Santiago said he “had the privilege of taking care of this young man” after Evans stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in May 2010 during his fourth combat deployment. The two men discovered they’re both from the same hometown in Puerto Rico. (Courtesy photo)

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FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Women dominate the nursing profession, but retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Manny Santiago is quick to point out some historical exceptions.

“Men have been nursing for centuries,” said Santiago, a critical nurse specialist at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

He cites Camillus de Lellis, the 16th century priest in Italy who founded a religious order dedicated to caring for the sick, and Walt Whitman. The 19th century poet already was well-known for Leaves of Grass when he tended to soldiers in hospitals during and after the Civil War.

As for modern-day exceptions, there’s Santiago – and about 4,400 other men, or 28 percent of the approximately 17,500 active-duty, reserve, and civilian nurses in the Military Health System, according to recent Department of Defense data. In comparison, data suggests that only about 11 percent of all nurses outside of MHS are men.

“Nursing is such a great career field,” said Air Force Capt. Sam Cash, a registered nurse in the Post Anesthesia Care Unit at Malcolm Grow Hospital, Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland.

“The whole mindset that it’s a female profession – I think that’s going by the wayside,” Cash said. “More and more men are coming into the field. Times are changing.”

Cash became a nurse through the Air Force’s Nurse Enlisted Commissioning Program. “I was in a class of 40 people, and four of us were guys,” he said.

He already had 12 years of service as a ground radio operator; bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration; and some pre-med course credits from a community college near Scott Air Force Base, Illinois.

“I know I kind of stumbled into nursing,” said Cash, who completed a bachelor’s in nursing in December 2009. “All I knew is that I wanted to be an officer, and I wanted to be in the medical field. But honestly, I know being a nurse is the best job in the military. There are all these different avenues you can take.”

Santiago also earned a bachelor’s in nursing through the military. He enlisted in the Navy in 1985, a few credits shy of a bachelor’s in marine biology from a college in his native Puerto Rico. After serving six years as a hospital corpsman, Santiago was accepted into the Navy’s Medical Enlisted Commissioning Program.

He finished in 1992 and spent another 18 years in uniform as an emergency room nurse. Along the way, he earned a master’s in nursing with concentrations in critical care, acute care, and trauma.

After retiring from the Navy in 2009, Santiago became a civilian nurse in the Wounded Warrior Unit at what’s now Walter Reed-Bethesda. He’s personally mentored and coached more than 2,000 staff members in the classroom and at hospital bedsides, according to the citation accompanying his 2017 Senior Civilian Nursing Award from the MHS.

Guillermo “Bill” Leal Jr. is a nurse case manager at the Warrior Transition Unit at Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas.

“I know the Army, I know nursing, and I know people,” said Leal, who became a nurse after retiring from the Army in 1994 as a master sergeant. “I don’t think there’s any other job better for me anywhere else than to be a nurse in the WTU.”

Leal enlisted in 1974 and started as a supply clerk before “following in my dad’s footsteps” and becoming a combat medic. After retiring, he used the GI Bill to earn accreditation as a licensed vocational nurse, and later enrolled in a two-year registered nurse program. He’s been at the WTU for about eight years.

Leal, Cash, and Santiago all said family members of patients sometimes confuse them for physicians. And back when Cash was in nursing school and doing a labor and delivery rotation, an older civilian nurse was overheard saying she didn’t think it was appropriate for him to be in the room while a woman was giving birth – though apparently that nurse didn’t have a problem with the male obstetrician being present.

Leal, Cash, and Santiago are simply three men in roles that many people are accustomed to seeing women fill.

“If there’s a guy who’s thinking about nursing, I think he should definitely go for it,” Cash said. “Nursing is such a great career field. It’s so broad. At the core of it, if you enjoy helping people, then you should go into nursing.”

Adds Santiago:  “Male nurses are still a minority, but we’re a very proud minority. We bring a different perspective because men are wired a little differently than females – right? So I think our contributions are very important.”

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