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The College of St. Scholastica

As recently as 15 years ago, it was true that very few hospitals and medical centers offered high-quality, specialized care for military service members and veterans. This long resulted in many in our nation’s valued military population reaching the end of their lives without the benefit of compassionate care to meet their unique needs and aid in supporting their families.

Remarkable strides have since been made, however, to honor and care for our veterans, active service members and their families. Military social workers played significant roles during both World Wars. But the importance of this specialized profession has been highlighted tenfold as the complex behavioral health problems and service needs of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have risen to the surface.

Detailed guidebooks and other resources relating the sheer necessity of and standards for social work practice with service members, veterans and their families are now being offered and continually updated by organizations like the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It’s clear that military social work is now positioned as a vital aspect of healthcare for our military population.

If you’re looking to dedicate your career to giving back to our nation’s service members by preserving their health and overall wellbeing, it may be time to consider pursuing military social work. Read on to learn more about this coveted specialty and learn how you can truly make a difference among those who may need it most.

What is military social work?

Military social workers assist active military service members and veterans in managing the social, emotional, psychological and familial challenges they may face. Many of these circumstances are unique to their experiences in active duty and thereafter. These can include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and other war-related mental health considerations, according to Shelly Richardson, associate professor of social work at the College of St. Scholastica (CSS).

Treatment can include individual or family counseling, assistance in navigating available resources and education. Many military social workers will also assist in developing programs and initiatives to meet needs they may recognize are lacking in available resources. In addition to proper knowledge and training regarding the social work field and the issues common to military personnel, these professionals must also maintain a working knowledge of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the history of military social work at large.

“There is an entire culture that is important to grasp — including language and jargon, rank, benefits and different formal supports — when working with the military and their families,” Richardson explains.

Dr. Kriss Kevorkian — who, in addition to many other accolades, teaches a number of Military Families and Culture courses — notes that while many students looking to pursue a career in military social work are veterans who want to give back, hopefuls with no military experience should prioritize getting to know the military inside and out before diving in.

“It is vitally important that military social workers know the culture of the military,” Dr. Kevorkian iterates, explaining that this is especially true when it comes to advocating for a client. There are specific systems and regulations in place in our military — rules that can vary from base to base. Military social workers must be able to understand each individual’s role within military and veteran populations, taking the complex responsibilities of personnel into account during each assessment.

It’s also true that in addition to the unique challenges service members and veterans may face — including things like isolation, anxiety, insomnia, PTSD, unemployment and substance abuse — they may also feel some initial resistance to working with social workers and participating in counseling sessions. Dr. Kevorkian explains that military personnel can often be protective of their experiences and may push back if they feel the professional cannot directly identify with what they’ve gone through.

Military social workers must rely on their specialized training to help them overcome such resistance. “Listening skills and empathy are the most important skills to have,” Dr. Kevorkian says, “in addition to knowing what resources are available. There are many, but they are often underutilized because people don’t always know what’s available to them.”

In addition to the counseling, intervention, educational and resource navigation duties listed above, military social workers may also plan and implement disease prevention and health promotion programs for service members, conduct research on relevant social issues and can even assist in training medical personnel.

Types of military social workers

Even as its own sector of the social work field, military social work boasts a number of distinct paths its professionals can choose to embark upon. Military social workers can work as embedded social workers within active military units, sometimes even serving as active or reserve duty personnel within a unit. Others opt to work in civilian settings with off-duty service members or veterans.

The duties of these different types of military social workers are quite similar, with the most prominent differences relating more to the environments in which they work. Learn more about each type below.

Embedded or active duty military social workers

All branches of the U.S. military offer active service members mental and emotional health services, in which military social workers can play a primary role. They’ll most commonly work on military bases, typically within medical and mental health departments.

Some social workers of this type are civilians, while others are actually trained to serve alongside other service members. An “embedded” military social worker will serve and travel with a specific unit. Others in this role can serve members from varying battalions in a stationary medical environment. Some may even be employed by a specific military program, such as the Family Advocacy Program or a substance abuse rehabilitation program.

Civilian military social workers

The U.S. military also offers numerous resources to help service members reintegrate into civilian environments after they return from deployment. In addition to support centers specific to each branch of the military, social workers in this sphere can also work with military clients in community service organizations, private practices and government programs that are designed to serve all sectors of our military.

In these civilian-based support centers, social workers will work alongside psychologists and other human services professionals to not only assist military personnel in managing the challenges they now face in civilian environments, but also with complex facets of military life. This includes navigating the process of applying for applicable benefits, relocation assistance, financial readiness, military child education and more.

Veteran social workers

Social workers can also play a critical role in helping veterans who may struggle as they attempt to cope with some of the lasting effects their military experiences have on their efforts to thrive in non-military environments. Their reintegration into society can often be laced with feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression and other symptoms of PTSD.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employs more than 11,000 social workers nationwide and funds many different initiatives and programs designed to address the challenges common among military veterans. Primary care social workers who work with veterans will generally work in inpatient and outpatient units within VA medical centers, while others work in tandem with community programs that serve the homeless.

The focus of this type of military social worker is not only on providing assistance in acclimating to civilian life, but also on administrative work that aims to develop better services for veterans in need.

Are you cut out to support our soldiers?

Just as our servicemen and servicewomen are committed to protecting us, Dr. Kevorkian stresses the importance of ensuring that their needs are also being provided for. This is why military social work has become such an important facet of the social work field.

If you find yourself drawn toward this specialty, it can be helpful to begin mapping out the educational path that can lead you there. Most military social work positions require a master’s degree from an accredited institution.

But even as undergraduates, students can begin assembling the skills needed to thrive in this profession by focusing on coursework relating to addressing trauma, substance abuse, PTSD and other challenges unique to the clients you’ll eventually be working with. Students would also be wise to seek out internship or volunteer opportunities at organizations that serve military populations.

If you’re looking to begin your undergraduate education, you’ll want to select a high-quality, accredited program that can teach you the basics of social work. Learn more by visiting The College of St. Scholastica’s BA Social Work information page. If you’re ready to pursue an advanced degree, head over to St. Scholastica’s Master of Social Work program page to learn more about your next steps.