Military Social Work in 2020: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and National Guard

Transitioning back to civilian life isn’t always easy for veterans, especially those who have experienced a trauma. Unpacking the mental and emotional effects of serving in a war zone can be an important step forward. But to gain the trust of clients, social workers need a deep understanding of military culture.

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What is a Military Social Worker?

Military social workers work with active military service members and veterans to help them address and manage the social, emotional, psychological and familial challenges they may face as a result of their job. Military social workers also provide counseling and support to the families of current and former service members and can work in a wide array of settings.

For example, military social workers can embed in active military units and even serve as active or reserve personnel. They can also work in civilian settings with military members who are off duty or veterans who are coping with the trauma of their past work. Typically, military social workers begin their career working closely with individuals and families. As they gain experience, they can progress to leadership and administrative positions, such as program managers and directors of psychological health.

Job Description at a Glance

Active and former military personnel can face unique psychological and emotional challenges, including isolation, anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. They may also experience socioeconomic, familial, and/or behavioral problems such as unemployment and financial hardship, marital conflicts, isolation from social circles, and substance abuse. Military social workers help their clients address these issues through individual and/or family counseling, resource navigation services, education, and development of programs and initiatives to serve military professionals and their families.

Education Requirements

According to the standards for social work practice with service members, veterans, and their families (PDF, 193 KB) established by the National Association of Social Workers, professionals in this field should have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work from a school accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), with an educational focus on the military and military families. Social workers with a BSW will be able to provide generalist services to service members, veterans and families. For social workers who would like to diagnose and treat mental health conditions, a focus on clinical social work during their master’s program can prepare them become licensed in this field.

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Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not report an average salary for social workers in this field. However, USAJOBS, the U.S. government's official website for civil service job opportunities, features a number of open positions for social workers in military settings, with salaries ranging from $50,000 to $90,000 per year depending on education and experience.

How to Become a Military Social Worker

Military social workers recommend a combination of solid academic preparation and internships or professional experience in a military setting for people interested in entering this field. Military social workers must at least hold a BSW from a CSWE-accredited institution or a MSW accredited by the CSWE. The general steps to become a military social worker are:

  1. Complete a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW).
  2. Pursue a master’s degree in social work (MSW), with relevant coursework.
  3. Seek internships in a military setting and complete fieldwork hour requirements.
  4. Apply to become licensed in your state.

Social work students and practicing social workers interested in helping veterans have a wealth of resources available to learn more about this important area of work.

For social workers with only a bachelor’s in social work (BSW), a master's in clinical social work (MSW) program may help you learn more about clinical social work or mental health concentrations. If you have a MSW, check our guide onhow to become a LCSW.

Social work students and professionals can find publications, tutorials and seminars about military social work careers from the National Association of Social Workers. NASW also offers the Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families - Social Worker (MVF-SW) credential for social workers with a bachelor’s degree and the Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Advanced Social Worker (MVF-SW) credential for social workers with a master’s degree.

“[Taking] coursework focused on military and/or taking advantage of the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) five free, two-hour military social work webinars is a great way to start to learn about military culture, challenges, issues prevalent in military families, and how to support them,” said Jaclyn Fischer-Urmey, MSW, DCSW, and the director of psychological health for the 514th Air Mobility Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. “These webinars can be found at http://www.naswwebed.org/.”

Information about military social work careers is also available through organizations that serve the military and their families, including Military OneSource, Defense Centers of Excellence, TRICARE, the Center for Deployment Psychology, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The Center for Deployment Psychology and the Defense Centers of Excellence have online tutorials, workshops and materials to help civilians get a sense of the types of challenges military populations face, and how social workers and people in helping professions assist them.

Hospitals and medical centers, community service organizations and mental health centers may also have resources to help mental health and human services professionals assist military populations. “Massachusetts General Hospital offers an online training series called From the War Zone to the Home Front: Supporting the Mental Health of Veterans and Families. And the National Center for PTSD is another useful site to visit,” said Donna Maglio, LCSW, who is an embedded civilian military social worker for the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

Getting relevant training via undergraduate and graduate coursework is important, said Fischer-Urmey. “Most military social work positions, such as those in the Department of Veterans Affairs and the departments of the Army/Navy/Air Force/Interior, to name a few, require a master’s degree from an accredited institution. That is where I advise most people to begin,” she told OnlineMSWPrograms.com.

Students at undergraduate and graduate social work programs without military social work concentrations can build the skills to work with military personnel by focusing on classes that discuss how to address trauma, substance abuse, severe stress, anxiety and other challenges this population faces. Fischer-Urmey also advised students to seek internships that allow them to work closely with veterans, active military personnel, and/or the children and spouses of military service members.

“There are many community-based agencies around the country that have been awarded grants from the VA to provide services to veterans and their families, such as Supportive Services for Veterans Families (SSVF),” Zander Keig, LCSW, who works as a homeless outreach social worker for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), told OnlineMSWPrograms.com.

Volunteering is also an excellent way to gain experience helping military personnel and veterans, and to build professional skills applicable to this area of work. “[Volunteering] for a Veteran Service Organization (VSO), such as Disabled American Veterans (DAV), AmVets and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), would provide a social work student with access to the veterans’ claim filing process through the Veterans Benefits Administration,” he said. “Knowing how to navigate the VA claim process is a beneficial skill when working with veterans experiencing homelessness.”

To supplement coursework, internship and volunteer work, students can also learn a lot by reading books about the issues service members encounter during after deployment, and by speaking with friends and family who are involved in military work.

“Books that I often recommend are“Rule Number Two: Lessons I Learned in a Combat Hospital”by Heidi Squier Kraft,“War”by Sebastian Junger and“On Killing”by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, but there are so many books out there on all kinds of military-related topics that would be useful in understanding more about this population,” Maglio said. She also explained how her connections in the military helped motivate her to become a military social worker. “My father is a Vietnam veteran of the United States Marine Corps and I have other family members and friends who have served or are currently serving our country,” she told OnlineMSWPrograms.com. “A close friend of mine was killed in Iraq in 2004 and that experience definitely got me more involved with this population. It’s been an honor to work with this community and to help them feel more comfortable with the therapeutic process.”

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Types of Military Social Workers

Military social workers work in settings where current and former military personnel require or seek support and counseling.

“Active-duty and civilian military social workers are needed all over the world in a variety of capacities in every branch of service and government organization,” Fischer-Urmey said.

The Department of Defense (DoD) has developed numerous emotional and mental health support services for active and off-duty military personnel, while the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employs social workers nationwide to assist veterans through several different programs. The many types of government-funded military support programs mean that military social workers are employed in a wide and diverse range of work environments and can take on many different roles during their career.

Some environments where military social workers work include military bases and units, medical facilities, military support centers, VA health centers, community service organizations, and private practices.

While their work setting may vary, the core mission of military social workers remains the same: to help active military service members fulfill their professional responsibilities while maintaining healthy personal lives, and/or to support veterans in transitioning to civilian life and coping with the emotional ramifications of their experiences.

“Civilian and active-duty social workers all serve the same population: military members and their families, no matter where they are assigned,” Fischer-Urmey said.

While specific job titles may vary across different military divisions, government departments, and other organizations, military social workers fall into the following general categories:

Embedded and Active-Duty Military Social Workers

All branches of the U.S. armed forces provide mental and emotional health services to their active personnel. Military social workers play an important role in these services, and can be found at military bases, often within medical and mental health departments. While some of these social workers are civilians, in that they do not serve in the military, others complete training and serve alongside other military service members.

Social workers who work at military bases typically provide targeted counseling and emotional support and connect clients to resources and education to help them function optimally at their jobs. Military social workers can serve and travel, or embed, with one unit.

“My role as an embedded military social worker is to provide brief, solution-focused, non-medical counseling to service members and their families,” Maglio said. “[The] approach I use with active duty is generally a skill-building approach since my main role is to help keep them functioning in their jobs.”

Military social workers can also serve personnel from multiple battalions if they work at military medical centers or other facilities that serve several units.

“The Marines, sailors and families [I work with] at Camp Lejeune are fortunate to have several other options for counseling outside of the battalion,” Maglio said. “There are active-duty social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists located at the naval hospital and clinics on base and there are also several behavioral health programs staffed by civilian therapists that can provide various types of support and counseling.”

Due to the intense and stressful demands of their jobs, military service members tend to experience mental, emotional and relationship challenges that can negatively impact their work.

“Typical issues [that my clients face] include relationships, job-related stress, communication, financial stress, sleep disturbance, combat reintegration, transitioning out of the military, anger management and lack of healthy coping skills,” Maglio said.

Military social workers also generally work as part of a larger team of medical and mental health professionals, such as the on-base chaplain, physician, medical officer and psychiatrist.

Military support programs, such as the Family Advocacy Program, the Navy’s Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program, and the Air Force’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Program, can also employ social workers and other mental and medical professionals to provide classes and workshops on topics such as emotional regulation, conflict resolution, stress management and substance addictions. “I also give briefings and teach educational classes on specific topics, such as grief and reintegrating home from combat,” Maglio told OnlineMSWPrograms.com.

As military social workers gain more experience in the challenges that active personnel face and how to address them, they may take on leadership roles, such as director of psychological health (DPH) at a military base or division. A DPH and other leadership roles in military social work can involve administrative/supervisory responsibilities and clinical work with military personnel.

“My responsibilities include serving as the Air Force Reserve liaison with military and non-military agencies to promote timely information exchange, coordinate collaborative prevention efforts, and establish and maintain an extensive array of resources, associations and community partnerships,” Fischer-Urmey told OnlineMSWPrograms.com. “[My role also] includes designing, developing, coordinating and implementing prevention and community outreach and prevention efforts. I [also] provide psycho-diagnostic assessments and short-term, brief solution-focused counseling services to military and civilian personnel.”

Civilian Military Social Workers

Different military branches have resources to support their personnel in civilian environments when they return from deployment. Such resources include personnel support centers specific to each military branch, community service organizations and government programs that serve all military branches, such as Military OneSource (a 24/7 support service that connects military service members and their families to phone-based and in-person counseling and support on issues such as spousal conflict, personal health, education and financial literacy). Civilian support centers that serve military personnel and their families include:

  • Fleet and Family Support Centers (FFSC): FFSC provides individual and family counseling, career guidance, relocation assistance, and financial counseling to members of the Navy and their families.
  • The Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS): MCCS develops and implements Behavioral Health, Family Readiness, Personal and Professional Development and Military Personnel services to support the well-being and quality of life of Marine Corps members and their loved ones.
  • Airman and Family Readiness Centers (AFRC):: AFRCs offer deployment support, military child education, family support, employment assistance, financial readiness, relocation assistance, transition assistance, and personal and work life education to members of the Air Force and their families.
  • Army Community Service Centers (ACSC): ACSCs provide members of the Army with pre- and post-deployment planning services, family advocacy and support (including domestic violence prevention), new parent support, re-entry seminars and workshops, career counseling and employment assistance, financial readiness programs, and family assistance centers.

These military support organizations employ people in helping professions such as social workers, psychologists and other human services specialists to counsel and guide clients applying for benefits and managing challenges in their work and personal lives. Civilian military social workers can also work in private practice with military personnel who have returned from deployment and who need help transitioning to civilian life.

Veteran Social Workers

Another important role military social workers play is counseling and supporting veterans who are struggling with reintegrating into society and/or managing mental, emotional and familial challenges resulting from their experiences.

“The VA employs over 11,000 social workers nationwide. It is recognized as the single largest employer of social workers by the NASW,” Keig said.

The VA funds many departments, facilities and programs to address the complex and sometimes severe challenges veterans face. Social workers are an essential part of many of these programs, and can be found at VA medical centers, community based clinics, and veterans centers.

“The majority of social workers work in two distinct settings: primary medical care and homeless programs,” Keig said. “Primary care social workers generally work in inpatient and outpatient medical units at VA medical centers and at community-based outpatient clinics. Homeless program social workers work in the same settings yet focus on providing veterans with resources and referrals to VA and community programs serving the homeless.”

Veteran social workers often fulfill a wide variety of tasks to support veterans and their families. Keig said his role at the VHA includes a combination of care coordination and resource navigation services at the individual level, and more administrative work aimed at developing better services for homeless veterans.

“As a homeless outreach social worker in Oakland, California, I am liaison to a community-based, VA contract, homeless shelter with 15 beds reserved for male veterans,” he said. “I facilitate the process for securing a VHA primary care provider [for my clients] and work with the shelter case manager to identify and resolve barriers to transitional or permanent housing, gainful employment and sobriety (financial, mental illness, physical disability, etc.).”

Military social workers can also work with veterans at private clinics and practices. In addition to being an embedded military social worker, Maglio works closely with veterans in her private practice, Trinity Psychotherapy LLC. She described how her work with veterans differs significantly from her targeted, skills-oriented approach with active military service members.

“[My work with veterans is] typically longer-term and [on] a more regular schedule, usually once a week for an hour-long appointment, during which we go more in-depth into the issues,” she said. “Since the veteran population is either in the process of transitioning or has already transitioned to civilian life, we can start to unpack the stress and trauma that they have piled up over the years in a safe environment.”

What Military Social Workers Do

Military social workers typically combine counseling and guidance of individuals and families with development of and engagement in programs to help military and veteran populations on a larger scale. Some methods military social workers use to help their clients include:

Mental Health Counseling and Therapy

Military social workers can use a combination of clinical social work methods to assess, diagnose, prevent and address their clients’ mental, emotional, behavioral and relationship challenges. These methods include psychosocial and risk assessments, cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, supportive psychotherapy, motivational interviewing, harm reduction techniques, and experiential therapeutic modalities such as equine-assisted psychotherapy, music therapy, art therapy and role-playing.

Resource Navigation

There are a wide array of resources and programs available to members of all branches of the military. Knowing about and properly taking advantage of these programs, however, can be overwhelming or difficult for military personnel, who have busy and stressful schedules and who also must balance work with family life. Military social workers help military personnel, veterans and their families access the government and community resources that are available to them by educating their clients about the benefits they qualify for, guiding them to apply for these benefits (financial aid for school, career counseling, medical benefits, etc.), and connecting them with other people and organizations that can help.

Crisis Intervention

For military personnel and families who are experiencing acute trauma or struggling with severe psychological, emotional, and/or behavioral challenges (post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic and other types of violence, severe substance abuse, suicidal tendencies, etc.), social workers collaborate with a larger team of medical and/or mental health care professionals to intervene and treat the individuals involved in the crisis (including the spouses, children, relatives, and friends of military service members and/or veterans, if they are directly affected by the crisis).

Advocacy

Social workers can serve as advocates for disadvantaged military personnel and their families. Active military service members who struggle with depression, sleep disorders, and/or substance abuse, veterans coping with physical disabilities, and spouses of military personnel who are experiencing financial hardships are just a few examples of populations that could benefit from social work advocacy. Military social workers can engage with nonprofit groups and advocacy organizations, and contact local, state and national governments about issues that military populations face, to help ensure vulnerable military populations and their families receive the government and community support they need.

Program Development

Military social workers can also help develop, implement and evaluate local, state and national programs to improve the well-being of and opportunities for military populations and their loved ones. These include family support programs, scholarships and other types of educational support, employment assistance programs, and suicide awareness and prevention initiatives. Program development typically involves researching target populations’ needs, applying for and receiving funding, and building staffing and processes around certain objectives (for example, helping veterans address substance abuse).

Challenges Military Social Workers Face

Military social workers face numerous challenges on the job, including the complexity and severity of clients’ issues, the exposure to clients’ trauma, and limitations on resources.

“[T]his population typically has a multitude of major issues they are dealing with, such as anxiety/depression, chronic sleep disturbance, substance abuse, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and family issues, in addition to having been exposed to events that most of us can’t even imagine, so you need to figure out where the best place is to start with these very complex cases,” Maglio said.

Military social workers may also face the frustration of being unable to help their clients as much as they’d like, due to limited resources and staffing.

“There is a growing population of elderly homeless low-income veterans, dealing with illness and sometimes substance use disorders, presenting to our clinic requesting referrals to housing programs,” Keig said. “Unfortunately, because of their ADL (activities of daily living) limitations, they are ineligible for placement.”

In instances of limited resources and urgent and overwhelming client needs, some social workers may feel compelled to work exceptionally long hours to help as many people as possible, which can lead to burnout.

Military social workers who are embedded with military units or who choose to be active members of the military on top of their social work duties encounter additional challenges, one of which is adjusting to the culture and the fast pace of military life. “Working with the military takes a certain mindset and understanding of the culture of the military,” Fischer-Urmey said of her years working as an officer and social worker in the Navy and the Air Force.

“My first great challenge was transitioning from civilian mindset to a military mindset. […] Going from the civilian mindset of relative stability, control, and safety, to the military mindset of constant transition, little control, and unguaranteed safety took a few years,” she said.

“I never really know who’s going to walk through my door each day,” Maglio said, “Because I make myself visible, there are times I might be walking along the sidewalk and someone will grab me for a few minutes to talk about an issue. You really have to be on your toes at all times here because you just never know when an issue is going to come up or when someone is going to approach you for counseling.”

The challenges that military social workers encounter can lead to significant stress and burnout if clinicians are not careful. Helping their clients process extremely difficult or disturbing experiences can also negatively impact military social workers’ mental and emotional health. Conscious and consistent self-care practices, seeking a strong support network of family, friends, and fellow professionals, and even engaging in their own therapy can help military social workers stay energized and engaged in their work.

Why People Become Military Social Workers

Despite the many difficulties of their line of work, military social workers can derive a great deal of gratification from helping military populations and their loved ones. “Once they get past the initial stigma of engaging in therapy, I’ve found my military clients to be extremely motivated and willing to do the work it takes to make positive changes in their lives,” Maglio said.

Fischer-Urmey said clients often are grateful for the help. “During my years working with military and their families, I’ve had many encounters with grateful clients, several of whom I’ve had the opportunity to run into over the years at other bases and in different countries,” she told OnlineMSWPrograms.com.

“I really am treated as part of ‘the family’ here at the battalion,” Maglio said. “I attend all of their special events, such as formations for awards and promotions, retirement ceremonies and holiday parties. I also attend outings and dinners with the spouses and children.”

Keig said witnessing his clients’ progress and growth makes his work gratifying and sustaining.

“The most rewarding aspect of my current position is seeing the transformation so many of the veterans go through: from homeless, penniless and filled with despair to housed, working or collecting pension and/or disability compensation and feeling hopeful about their future,” he said. “I intend to remain working for the federal government as a social worker until I retire.”

Fischer-Urmey told OnlineMSWPrograms.com her work is deeply rewarding.

“[Each] location to which I’ve been assigned, with the exception of my deployment, I have been the suicide prevention program manager,” she said, “I have many rewarding experiences of working with military and families, to include seeing relationships restored, substance abusers recover, mental health symptoms under control, acceptance of being separated from service through medical board, administrative separation, or retirement, grievers heal, stressors managed and eliminated, and careers saved, [but] the greatest reward of all is not losing a single life on my watch. The best reward of working with the military is helping save lives. Everyone matters.”

Military social workers provide compassion, guidance and essential support services to individuals who have devoted their lives to protecting the country. Through a combination of careful preparation, commitment to helping others, and adequate self-care, military social workers can create a deeply rewarding, impactful career that not only benefits military populations and their families, but also strengthens the national community.

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