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Military Social Work: On the Front Lines of Social Justice

Military social work jobs provide a wide range of opportunities for those looking to pursue a unique, rewarding career in the field. Social workers have played vital roles in military history since military social work was first established within the U.S. Department of Defense more than 50 years ago, according to theNational Association of Social Workers.1 In today’s climate, the demand for this specialized group of compassionate heroes has never been higher.

According to the Defense Manpower Data Center, approximately 1.4 million Americans are currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces — that’s not counting the family members and friends who are impacted by their loved one’s service. With more than 22 million veterans from conflicts dating back to World War II, social workers aren’t just helping mend today’s wounds, but those of past generations as well.2,3

Life’s everyday struggles become even more complex when you layer in the pressures of military life. The strains of deployment, combat, and reintegration on human behavior can lead to emotional, mental, and physical challenges that social workers, with proper training, are uniquely positioned to support. Multiple deployments are more common than ever, often with very little time lapsing between assignments, leaving soldiers and their families more vulnerable to physical, mental and emotional issues.4

There are quite a large number of veterans with PTSD. In fact, it’s estimated that approximately 15-20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from some level of post-traumatic stress.5 Anxiety, depression, and other mental health and/or substance abuse issues are also common among the military population. Military suicide facts prove even dimmer. A series of recent studies and news reports revealed that 22 veterans commit suicide every day,6 and female veterans are six times more likely to commit suicide than female nonveterans.7 Beyond these invisible struggles, many soldiers who have been physically injured in combat require ongoing medical care after returning to the states. Others may require assistance with housing, healthcare, care coordination, and a variety of other services.

Social workers play a critical role in helping the military population navigate these challenges, and they have the opportunity to do so through a variety of employers, whether it’s a specialized private practice, veterans’ service organization or agency, medical facility, or by choosing to enlist as a social worker in the Air Force, Army or Navy. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, is one of the largest U.S. employers of professionals with a master’s in social work.

Job responsibilities as a military social worker may range from direct services like behavioral and clinical counseling to research, teaching, training, administration, and policy development. Spouses and children of service members face their own set of unique challenges, and advocating for their health and well-being is another essential function that social workers can support.8

For as long as there is a military, the social worker will remain an essential part of that infrastructure, not only to serve soldiers returning from battle, but also to help shape future policy and continuing treatment of service men and women.

1NASW Standards for Social Work Practice with Service Members, Veterans & Their Families, 2012.

2U.S. Department of Defense, 2015.

3U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 2015.

4National Center for PTSD, “What is Deployment?” April 6, 2012.

5Social Work Today, “Working with Veterans and Military Families,” March/April 2013 Issue., “This Bill Could Help Veterans With Mental Health,” Feb. 6, 2015.

7New York Daily News, “Female Veterans Nearly Six Times More Likely to Commit Suicide: Study,” June 8, 2015.

8U.S. Army, Careers & Jobs, 2015.