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Support From the Home Front: Military Social Workers

Social workers work to provide support to military individuals and families in many different ways. They help military personnel and their families manage complex medical, social and emotional issues.

Through their efforts, military social workers ultimately play a part in strengthening our country’s defense forces.

How has the role of military social worker evolved?

Military social workers have served military personnel and their families since the First World War. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs began employing social workers in 1926 and now boasts more than 12,000 social workers across the organization1.

The classification of “military social worker” was created after World War II, when many social workers were called upon to help those affected by the war.

Today, military social workers serve an important function in the treatment and care of veterans and soldiers.

How great is the need for social workers?

The psychological and social services provided by social workers are just as important as medical treatment for wounded soldiers.

Veterans must cope not only with physical injuries and fatigue, but also the emotional burden of separation from family, combat experience and reintegration at home.

Around 15 to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD. This has received more recognition in recent years, with the Joining Forces initiative heightening awareness for these issues and advocating for broader services and support.2

According to a 2012 study by researchers at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), male and female veterans are equally affected by PTSD.3

According to Dr. Sonja Batten, VA’s Deputy Chief Consultant for Specialty Mental Health: “In the general population, women are twice as likely as men to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. But among recent returnees seeking care at VA, PTSD rates among men and women are the same. Statistics such as these suggest the need to better understand the role of gender in PTSD, particularly as it may impact our veterans seeking care.”

These veterans may also develop other mental health issues such as depression and substance abuse, which often go hand-in-hand with PTSD.

The stress of a military career can affect both veterans and their families. Veterans may see friends wounded or killed in action, causing ripple effects throughout their local community. Veterans need to transition between combat overseas and everyday life, which can prove difficult when dealing with PTSD and its effects. Those on active duty need to help their family members manage both with and without them around, helping partners adjust to life as single parents and letting kids understand the effect of their absence.

What do military social workers do?

Social workers are uniquely positioned to support veterans’ mental health and provide access to services they and their families may need. Military social workers are needed throughout the U.S. armed forces. As examples, there are specific recruiting pages on websites for the Army, Navy, Air Force, Air Force Reserve and National Guard.4-8 (Check the service branch of your choice or your state's National Guard recruiting site for additional information.)

Social workers can also work in private practice or in veterans’ service organizations such as:

  • Coaching Into Care: Social workers coach veterans’ friends and families to encourage veterans to access community services9
  • Give an Hour: Volunteer social workers provide free mental health services to military members, veterans and their families, especially those who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf10
  • Iraq And Afghanistan Veterans Of America: Social workers who hold a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree can help connect, unite and empower post-9/11 veterans11 

Military social workers can also:

  • Refer clients to healthcare, financial, relocation, recruitment and other services
  • Debrief critical events
  • Conduct research
  • Implement health promotion programs
  • Supervise the training of new graduates
  • Contribute to administration and policy development

Factors to consider

There are several factors that prospective military social workers need to consider when determining whether this is the right career path.

Dealing with serious issues of life, death and permanent disability can create secondary trauma and compassion fatigue for military social workers. Some civilian social workers may feel like “outsiders,” being unable to fully understand the complexities and hardships of military life.

Additionally, social workers may need to balance their ethical obligations and the needs of their clients with the demands of a mission.

However, military social workers develop a strong sense of purpose in their work. Some might focus on how they are helping military families who have sacrificed so much. Others look to the ultimate goal of supporting the strength of the nation.

Having an advanced education in social work, such as a Master of Social Work degree from Our Lady of Lake University, could enable you to better serve our nation’s military personnel and their families.