WASHINGTON -- When Spc. Ashley Torrens completed her first day of clinical training on Monday at the Armed Forces Retirement Home, the most important lesson the future Army nurse learned was how the military takes care of its own.

"It's humbling," said Torrens, currently in a yearlong program to become a licensed practical nurse. "It makes you understand why we put our lives at risk, just because we know that we have each other's back."

Each month, 50 cents is taken from the paychecks of active-duty enlisted Soldiers and warrant officers to help run the retirement home here and another in Gulfport, Mississippi. Formed in 1991, the independent government agency has roots dating back to the 19th century when the Army built a Soldiers Home in Washington, D.C., and the Navy started a similar one, which is now in Gulfport. Both those homes later merged to assist veterans from all military services.

Today, the retirement home in Washington houses almost 400 veterans, many of whom served in past conflicts. It has also become a training ground for up-and-coming Army nurses honing their skills on geriatric care.

Based at the nearby Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Torrens and fellow nursing students visit the retirement home as part of their advanced individual training before they join the ranks of the Army Nurse Corps.

"Since it's initial training, a lot of them have never been around patients, so it's a good start for them as opposed to throwing them in at Walter Reed," said Alfreda Johnson, a former Army captain who now works as one of the program's nursing instructors.

With more than 80 Soldiers, the Walter Reed program is the largest of five such Army nursing programs, according to Johnson. All students begin at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Then for Phase II, many of them head off to Fort Gordon, Georgia; Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington; Fort Bliss in Texas; or Walter Reed.

When their noses are not buried in textbooks, students observe medical care in action, as well as perform it themselves. At Walter Reed, students provide assistance in intensive care units and treat wounded warriors who can have various ailments such as amputations or a traumatic brain injury.

"The ultimate goal is to train them so they can actually work in a combat zone," said Johnson, who is also a nurse at Walter Reed. "We want them to be ready if unfortunately that should happen."

MORE THAN COMBAT CARE

When nursing students visit the retirement home, they typically see different illnesses, ranging from Alzheimer's disease to chronic ailments like diabetes and cardiac conditions.

The young Soldiers also get to hear a wealth of military history from the aging but experienced residents. "Most students say it's better than any textbook," Johnson said.

Residents also enjoy having the uniformed Soldiers roam around the hallways, said Michael Bayles, chief of health care services at the retirement home.

"It's good for them because it gives them a feeling that they're still engaged with the military," said Bayles, a retired Army colonel.

Being a former public health nurse himself, Bayles said the Soldiers could one day rely on the geriatric care training they get here if stationed at a medical center where they would treat an array of patients.

Deployed locations may present opportunities to use geriatric training, too. On a past deployment to Iraq, Bayles said he had older contractors come in for care while working at a combat support hospital. Elderly people are also seen during medical readiness exercises that Soldiers often perform outside the United States.

"I think the real value is getting them thinking about more than just combat care and being able to have some geriatric experience," Bayles said.

LICENSED NURSE

While helping residents who suffer from dementia, Torrens said she admired the enthusiasm and patience of one of the on-site nurses trying to get them engaged in a craft project. It's an attitude she hopes to recreate in her future work as a nurse.

"You can't be a nurse and not have empathy," said Torrens, 28, of San Juan, Puerto Rico. "You have to have the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes.

"We're all humans and we have our own burdens," she added. "But you have to leave them at the door once you go into the hospital because the patient comes first."

Pvt. 2 Naudia Glass, 23, of Atlanta, worked alongside Torrens as they shadowed the nurses. She said the nursing program has been an eye opener.

"When I came in [to the Army], I didn't know we had nurses at all," Glass said. "I thought it was just combat medics."

The only Army medical job where a Soldier can become a licensed professional in both the military and civilian sectors after completing initial training, the 68C practical nursing specialist program is also a money saver for Soldiers. On average, the cost of tuition for LPN programs is about $10,000 to $15,000, according to nursing career websites.

The cost savings, along with other benefits, swayed Torrens to switch to 68C after serving as an Army information technology specialist.

"I reclassed because I wanted to go back into health care," said Torrens, who already has an associate's degree in physical therapy.

"For me, it's always been humbling. It takes the focus off of you and puts it on someone else. You become a tool to make someone's life better."