– Andrew Hutton hopes that a yearlong tour in Afghanistan and training as an Army medic treating soldiers for gunshot wounds and roadside bomb injuries will give him an advantage working in medicine in the civilian world.

To make sure that happens, one community college in northern Minnesota is offering a valuable program that recognizes his military skills and is fast-tracking him toward a nursing degree.

Lake Superior College, a Duluth community college with an enrollment around 10,500, has stepped forward to offer an LPN program for medics. It allows vets and current military members with medic training to earn a practical nursing diploma in six months, knocking four months off the usual time it takes to complete the training.

Lake Superior worked with the Minnesota Board of Nursing to develop the curriculum and recognize gaps in the medics’ skills.

The school’s Military Bridge Medic to LPN program remains the only one of its kind in the state. Hutton, a member of the Wisconsin National Guard, and Matthew Girtz, a medic in the Army Reserve, are its first two students.

“If I had known about it a year earlier I would have applied,” said Girtz, who had been working at Gander Mountain and learned about the program from another member of his unit. “The biggest problem was that no one had heard about it.”

Deb Amys, Lake Superior College’s director of nursing, has been the guiding force behind the school, which hopes to enroll at least 10 students to break even on the costs associated with the program.

“We’re finding that people are just unaware of us,” Amys said. “Once word gets around we’ll be more marketable. This is an opportunity to get someone into a civilian job that pays well.”

The school has a similar program for physical therapy assistants.

Translating military skills

As thousands of men and women like Hutton return from military service, states have launched or expanded programs to ease their transitions back into civilian life, particularly for those interested in entering high-demand professions. From 2013 to 2015, 39 states issued executive orders or passed legislation to help veterans translate their military skills into civilian employment, according to a 2015 report on veteran licensing and certification.

As part of that, Minnesota was one of six states that participated in an 18-month demonstration project by the National Governors Association to explore ways to expedite the military-to-civilian transition.

It was not just a thanks-for-your-service gesture. The idea was not only to recognize duplicative skills and redundant training, but to save both the student and the government money, particularly in reducing the costs of programs like the GI Bill.

In Minnesota, the project examined three civilian occupations: law enforcement, paramedic and licensed practical nurse.

Dave Bellefeuille, education and employment director for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, said it has been easier to facilitate the transition in some professions than others. Century College, for instance, moved quickly to successfully establish a paramedic bridge program.

The LPN program faces more hurdles.

Minnesota has no active-duty military bases, and projections show that only a few military medics separating from the service might end up in the state. The focus has been on attracting medics in the National Guard or Reserves. With little financing for recruitment or marketing, Amys has crisscrossed the state to places like National Guard drill weekends to promote the program.

Despite the challenges, programs like Lake Superior’s have advantages in eliminating redundant education, said Bellefeuille, who helped establish the program.

“Should we pay for the same training over again if these men and women bring viable skills to the table?” he asked.

“We look at this and we can have trained LPNs in a shorter time and the GI Bill is not going to be used for similar training and these men and women can get into the career field much more quickly and contribute to society.”

‘Tough change to make’

Students in Lake Superior’s regular LPN program began classes in September. Hutton and Girtz joined in January. The medics have taken some classes with other LPN students and some independent of them. They expect to complete clinical work in May and June and then be eligible to take the state’s licensing test later this summer.

“Military medicine is based around trauma,” Hutton said. “The change to the civilian side, with its deeper issues, was a tough change to make. But the staff is really good at helping us work through those different changes.”

Despite their training to be aggressive and autonomous in the field, Tracy Moshier, one of the instructors, said the two students have not exceeded their boundaries.

“Never once have I ever been afraid that they were just going to take hold and go with something that wasn’t within their scope,” she said. “I’ve been impressed that they are very quick to ask questions and they are the appropriate questions. They can integrate some of their backgrounds and make our scenarios more enriched.”

Hutton and Girtz both say they plan on going forward with the college’s registered nurse program and hope to use their skills in a hospital emergency room — preferably a civilian one.

“So much of what we do is Army, Army, Army,” Girtz said. “Sometimes it’s nice to get away from that.”