Capt. Rupert B. Laco, RN, MSN; United States Air Force

Profiles in Nursing

Capt. Rupert B. Laco, RN, MSN; United States Air Force

2016 Florence Nightingale Award Winner

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, did nothing to encourage the participation of men in our profession, subscribing to the popular belief that nursing was an extension of women’s role as caregivers. In the U.S., men were not even legally allowed to serve as military nurses until the 1950s. 

Despite that longstanding prejudice, male nurses like USAF Capt. Rupert Laco, RN, MSN, CSMRN, TCRN, NE-BC, continue to uphold our profession’s highest values. Laco is the winner of the ANAC 2016 Florence Nightingale Award for outstanding direct patient care.

Choosing the USAF

For his journey to nursing, Laco chose a challenging but surefire route: He got the military to pay for it. Most of the armed services offer scholarships, bonuses and incentive programs to attract applicants for their nurse corps, including the Health Professionals Loan Repayment Program.

The educational benefits drew Laco to military service, but he also found that the opportunities to travel and take on different assignments appealed to him. He says he chose the USAF because the recruiter was always available to answer his questions. Laco joined the Air Force in 2007 as part of the service’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC). He enrolled in the Community College of the Air Force in Alabama, where he earned his AA degree in applied science and allied health.   While in school, he worked for six years as a nursing assistant, known in the Air Force as an aerospace medical service specialist.

Those years exposed Laco to a wide range of nursing practice, including some areas not typically associated with military nursing, such as pediatrics and geriatrics. He transferred to the University of South Alabama to earn his BSN, which allowed him to become an RN and to earn his commission as a second lieutenant. He was later promoted to first lieutenant and in 2015 to captain.  Laco is currently an assistant nurse manager, but he is working on a DNP in executive nursing administration, which he hopes to complete in the fall of 2018. 

A Tough Challenge

Military nursing is not for people who place a high value on stability. Assignments are based on the needs of the service, so transfers and overseas deployments are facts of life. When Laco received his award last year, he was stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Solano County, working in the inpatient unit at the David Grant USAF Medical Center. He’s now stationed in Japan.

Laco, who is married, acknowledges that this commitment is not for everyone. Some transfers can mean family separations — spouses and children cannot go to remote or high-risk areas — and nursing in a combat zone or occupied territory can bring a whole new meaning to the term “violence in the workplace.” Because of these pressures, some military nurses serve for only a relatively short time.

Laco plans to make a career of it. “As a clinician, I can be an advance practice nurse or, if I wanted to, an intensive care, operating room, mental health, flight, inpatient, outpatient, health promotion or White House nurse,” he says. “As a leader, I can be a nurse manager, flight commander, squadron commander or chief nurse.” 

“Overall, you can be anything you wish for in your nursing career as long as there is funding availability and it meets mission requirements.” Advocacy is Laco’s central focus. Like so many nurses, he is driven by his desire to help his patients achieve better health through education, compassion and patient-centered support. 

The nature of military nursing offers some unique opportunities, including resource-sharing across different branches as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs. Even within the USAF, the modern “Total Nursing Force” includes more than 3,000 RNs across the Regular Air Force, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard.

Service With Distinction

The USAF Nurse Corps was established in 1949, but did not commission its first male reserve nurses until October 1955. It wasn’t until almost six years later that men were commissioned into the regular Nurse Corps — and their appointment was not technically authorized by law until September 1966. However, male nurses like Laco have gone on to serve with distinction.

The person who nominated Laco for the 2016 Florence Nightingale Award wrote that he exemplifies the principles of “integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do,” which are core values of the USAF Total Nursing Force and of nursing itself. 

Ol’ Flo might be turning in her grave, but there is no question that men like Laco have earned their place in our profession.

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