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Military Social Work: On the Front Lines of Social Justice

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Social workers support military individuals and families to help them 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 workers 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 15,000 master’s prepared social workers on staff.

The federal government considers military social workers part of the Armed Forces’ Allied Health network, where they serve an important function in the treatment and care of veterans, active-duty personnel, and their families.2

How great is the need for social workers?

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.3,4

Life’s everyday struggles become even more complicated 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 between assignments, leaving soldiers and their families more vulnerable to physical, mental, and emotional issues.5

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.6

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health 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 need assistance with housing, healthcare, care coordination, and a variety of other services.

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 play a critical role in helping the military population navigate these challenges. 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 Army, Navy, Air Force, Air Force Reserve and National Guard. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs 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. Advocating for their health and well-being is another essential function that social workers can support.8

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

  • Coaching Into Care: Social workers coach veterans’ friends and families to encourage veterans to access community services.9
  • 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 Gulf.10
  • 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 veterans.11

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,” unable to fully understand the complexities and hardships of military life.

Additionally, social workers may need to balance their ethical obligations and their clients’ needs 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. As long as there is a military, the social worker will remain an essential part of that infrastructure, serving soldiers returning from battle and helping shape future policy and continuing treatment of servicemen and women.

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. Request more information or call 855-275-1082 to speak with an admissions advisor.

Military Social Workers Serve on the Front Lines for Soldiers and Families

The demand for U.S. social workers has never been higher.1 Social workers in the military space work directly with veterans and military personnel and help family and friends affected by their loved one’s service. As more attention is focused on servicemembers and veterans’ mental health, military social workers are in greater demand.

Who is Affected?

  • For many veterans, the effects continue long after their military career is over.
  • Today, more than 22 million veterans in the U.S. have served in conflicts dating back to WWII.
  • Social workers provide tools to active duty and veterans to help them cope with their stress.
  • Social workers also help friends and family of military personnel learn to manage the stress of military life.

Causes of Strain

Multiple deployments with very little time elapsing between assignments can leave soldiers and their families feeling vulnerable, even after reintegration. The chronic problems experienced by soldiers and their families include emotional, mental, and physical duress.

  • Employment problems
  • Combat
  • Reintegration into the general population
  • Relationship problems
  • Physical symptoms from emotional and physical trauma

Offsetting the After-Effects

  • 15–20% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from some level of post-traumatic stress (PTSD), and 22 veterans commit suicide every day.2
  • Female veterans are six times more likely to commit suicide than female nonveterans3

Veterans Often Experience the Following

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse issues
  • PTSD
  • Suicide

How Can Military Social Workers Help

  • Assistance with housing and healthcare
  • Care coordination (helping with scheduling doctor appointments or counseling needs)
  • Help soldiers, veterans, and affected friends and family members navigate through obstacles after their military service.

The MSW Difference

A Master of Social Work degree opens doors to a career in private practice, veteran’s medical facilities, or the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Areas of Practice Can Include

  • Providing services ranging from behavioral and clinical counseling to research
  • Policy development
  • Rising to administrative positions, including teaching and training
  • Advocating for the health and well-being of spouses and children


  3. U.S. Department of Defense, 2015.
  4. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 2015.
  5. National Center for PTSD, “What is Deployment?” April 6,
  6. New York Daily News, “Female Veterans Nearly Six Times More Likely to Commit Suicide: Study,” June 8, 2015.
  7. U.S. Army, Careers & Jobs, 2015.

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