Military life is fraught with all kinds of challenges and new experiences that can impact a service member’s physical and mental well-being, social functionality and much more. The difficulties faced by our active duty and retired military personnel are as diverse as military life itself. Long periods of isolation from friends and loved ones, chronic stress disorders, fatigue, culture shock, depression and financial struggles are among the most common problems that have affected military service members for centuries. Veterans often have to deal with the long-term effects of these unaddressed issues and inadequate benefits at the same time.

Thankfully, military service members and veterans can now benefit from the assistance of a military social worker as a way of combating this swirling cocktail of new and often confusing issues. So, what exactly is a military social worker, and what do they do? Read on to learn more.

The Broad Definition of Military Social Work

Like most social work specialties, military social work is very targeted in terms of the population served, but equally as broad in terms of services provided. Military social workers provide therapy, education, counseling and many other services (listed below). They work with veterans, active duty service members and their families.

Put most simply, military social work is a specialty designed to meet the various needs of military service members. These specialists can work at military bases, standalone clinics, healthcare facilities, and other locations that provide services for military personnel. Military social workers can be positioned throughout any stage of the service member’s career, from enlistment to long after deployment. They diagnose behavioral and psychological disorders, refer to other specialists, prepare service members and their families for deployment, assist with relocation and much more. The setting in which they practice and their duties can both vary based on training and education.

Becoming a Military Social Worker: Training and Education

A social worker with a bachelor’s degree, regardless of specialty, is bound to work with military clients. To qualify for the full range of positions available in this specialty, however, a master’s degree is required.

Social workers with a master’s degree can join the military as officers. They can work directly with other professionals in the field, especially when beginning their career, to learn everything they can about the practice of military social work from an up-close perspective. Military social workers can also work in the military reserve, working with military populations before, after and between deployments.

This specialty is no exception to the all-important matter of research. Even without daily, face-to-face interactions with service members, sociological researchers can be of great assistance to the field. They can expose new ways to identify, assess and treat the various challenges that military service members face.

Scope of Practice

Since they address such a broad range of issues in such a broad number of ways, military social workers are often mislabeled or misunderstood in terms of what they actually do. Consider the following examples as an introduction to the field, but know that this is but a small sample of the military social worker’s scope.

Mental health services: Both active duty personnel and veterans can qualify for behavioral, emotional and any other psychological support they need. Some military social workers are trained to provide therapy directly. They can address mental health issues for service members throughout all points in their careers, before, during and long after deployment. Typically, the mental health issues addressed by military social workers include, but are not limited to:

  • PTSD
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Guilt
  • Grief counseling

Resource referrals: Whether they are embedded in a military unit or working with a facility, military social workers often refer their clients to programs and professionals that can manage their issues. This can be especially effective when clients are referred to programs that target specific problems. For example, Army Community Service Centers will help with home relocation, new parent support and a number of other situational challenges.

Military support programs: Military social workers don’t have to work on a base or with a specific unit to affect positive social change throughout the service member population. There are currently dozens of military support programs across the country that provide assistance to active and retired military personnel, like the Vet Center Program, which specializes in readjustment counseling for post-deployment military personnel.

From readjustment to depression counseling for wounded veterans, military support programs are an ideal environment for the social worker who wants to work with a diverse range of clients.

Organizational Leadership Roles: Military social workers with more leadership experience may pursue more managerial positions in military/veteran support organizations. Depending on education and experience, a military social worker can become a program manager or department director in this kind of organization. Job duties would include such things as:

  • Directing teams to create, manage and increase access to military support services.
  • Consulting with other teams or organizations to improve the quality of their services.
  • Training and educating social workers, counselors, and other personnel relevant to the organization.
  • Securing funds for support projects and assisting with lobbying/advocacy efforts.

Educational Roles: Military social workers are often called upon by program leaders to create classes and workshops designed to address commonly occurring issues in this population. For example, a military social worker may lead a workshop that provides students with advice and support for entering the civilian workforce. Similarly, instructors can specialize in peaceful conflict resolution, drug abuse and any other topic that needs attention.

Family support: In addition to the needs of the service member themselves, families of deployed service members especially often struggle with a broad range of logistical problems. Balancing a work schedule with child care and transportation, for example, can be burdensome with only one parent involved. Moving, handling legal issues, managing finances and other normally routine undertakings are twice as difficult as well. On top of all of this, family members often suffer from psychological problems as well – especially when young children are involved. To meet this wide array of needs, family support organizations like Blue Star Families offer support services of many forms.

As a military social worker, you would be responsible for connecting family members with these resources. Even more importantly, you would assess their needs – which often go overlooked – and determine the best selection of services to keep the family unit as functional as possible in the absence of the service member. After (or before) deployment, these organizations are still very active in their support.

The military social work specialization is an exemplary stage for the social worker to develop and display the skills inherent to the overall trade. Social workers in this area must combine research-based interventions, counseling, advocacy, mental health training and more in order to serve this diverse population.

Tim Kalantjankos

B.S. Sociology| University of Nebraska at Omaha

A..S Physical Therapy | Clarkson College

September 2019

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