March 10, 2020
By Mark Flatten

Every state has its own laws requiring people in certain professions to secure the government’s approval before they can work in their chosen occupations. The problem for military families is that they move around so much, typically every two to three years. As a result, spouses in licensed professions either have to give up their careers or go through the long, cumbersome, and bureaucratic process of getting relicensed every time they move.

By the time they get through the paperwork, complete the testing, get their license, and find a new job in the new state, new orders will likely come through that they will have to move again and start the process all over. At some point, they begin to ask when it will be their turn to put their careers first. Some talk about it. Some don’t.

“I thought about it every day,” said Debbi Chapman, an open-heart intensive care unit nurse who eventually gave up her profession because it became unworkable to maintain her license as she moved from state to state. “Did I voice it? No. But I’m sure there are many spouses out there that are not as accepting as I was.

“It’s like, which career is more important?” said Chapman, whose husband recently retired as an Army sergeant and bomb disposal expert. “My career is very important to the patients I work with. But his job is important to the country and to what he believes in and what he feels. We agree on that. He did a job that not many other people could do or would do. So it was important that he was highly trained. My job is important. I’m highly trained, but so is he, and in the grand scheme of things he was protecting the greater good.”

Chapman spent years jumping through the hoops, as she calls it, of trying to maintain her specialized nursing license amid frequent moves from state to state. Both she and her husband, Matthew, were well into their highly skilled, life-and-death careers by the time they married in 2003.

He was an explosive ordnance disposal specialist in the Army, trained to defuse bombs and other improvised explosive devices that would later bedevil American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. She had been a licensed nurse in Pennsylvania since 1992, specializing in intensive care treatment for patients immediately after open heart surgeries.

Early in their courtship, Matthew was stationed in Germany. In 2001, he received his transfer back to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, so Debbi moved there to be with him. She got a job as a nurse in the base hospital. Because it was a federal facility, she was able to use her Pennsylvania nursing license rather than get one in North Carolina.

Matthew was flying home from Germany on September 11, 2001, when terrorists crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania.

After about a year working on base, Chapman got a job at a civilian hospital in Cape Fear, North Carolina, which had a large open heart surgery center. Because the Chapmans were not married at the time, she did not qualify for any special treatment under the state’s otherwise military-friendly laws and policies. Despite her experience in specialized nursing, it took about six months to wade through the paperwork and get her state license.

Three days after their 2003 wedding, Matthew Chapman was notified he was being deployed to Iraq.

Ironically, given her later experiences, Debbi Chapman recalls attending a conference in 2004 in which military and North Carolina state officials outlined new policies that states were developing to make it easier for military spouses to transfer their professional licenses when they moved. Particularly encouraging was an effort launched about 2000 called the Nurse Licensure Compact, an agreement among member states which was supposed to allow a nurse licensed in one state to practice in another without having to get a new license.

Then reality set in.

In 2005, the Chapmans were transferred to Florida. At the time, Florida was not in the nurses’ compact. It joined in 2016. That’s one of the main shortcomings of the compact and similar agreements: they do the military spouse no good if the state they are moving to or from does not participate. Currently 34 states are in the compact. “None of the states we have ever lived in have been compact states where the license would transfer,” Debbi Chapman said. “So every state I would have to redo the process.”

It took several months to get her Florida license, but since she’d started the application process early she was able to get it approved and start working with little downtime.

She was in Florida until 2010, when her husband got new orders and they moved to Korea, where she was unable to work because of restrictions on employing non-Korean nationals.

Then in 2012, the Chapmans’ new orders sent them to Savannah, Georgia.

Debbi Chapman said she looked into getting a new license in Georgia, but the process would have taken months and, as she puts it, cost a small fortune. In the end, she “just gave up” and left the profession. Chapman said she “absolutely” would have gotten a new license in Georgia if she could have simply transferred her nursing credentials. It wasn’t an easy decision, both professionally and financially, she said. Military pay is not great, especially for enlisted personnel.

“That became a joke in my house because I made exceedingly more than Matthew was making,” she said. “It’s frustrating, especially when you are losing money because you have to take this amount of time off because your license is not going through.”

Chapman, like other nurses interviewed by the Goldwater Institute, said the difficulty in transferring their licenses from state to state makes no sense. The job they do does not change. The standards for patient care do not change. And nurses, like people working in most other health-related professions, take the same national standards tests.

Read more about what the Goldwater Institute is doing to break down barriers to work for military spouses like Debbi Chapman.

Mark Flatten is the National Investigative Journalist at the Goldwater Institute and the author of the report Dereliction of Duty: Military Spouses Struggle to Earn A Living Despite “Feel-Good” Licensing Laws.

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