Military social workers provide support and mental healthcare to the people who serve our country. Social workers are likely to work with a military personnel client at some point in their career, but there are many who choose to focus their studies on understanding the military, helping clients address the unique challenges that accompany a life of service.
Some of those challenges include working through mental and emotional health challenges. A number of veterans and active duty service members face depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, anxiety, or substance abuse. In fact, according to a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, at least 1.1 million veterans are treated for one or more of these disorders per year.
Military personnel may also struggle with unemployment and financial difficulties. Meanwhile, families of service members may face issues like domestic violence and child abuse. Social workers provide access to resources like financial aid, counseling, medical benefits, support groups, and more. They may work with members of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, or National Guard
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USC’s online MSW program offers a Military Social Work Track so you can help veterans and military families thrive. Bachelor’s required.
- CSWE-accredited MSW program
- Features virtual and in-person field education in or near students’ own communities
How to Become a Military Social Worker
Here is an overview of the common steps you may take to become a military social worker:
1. Earn a bachelor’s degree. With a bachelor’s degree in social work, you may be qualified for a number of entry-level and assistant positions. But nearly all social work jobs require a license—and for that, you must hold an MSW.
2. Complete a master’s in social work degree program. A Master of Social Work (MSW) is the minimum educational requirement for a career in military social work. Of course, before you can apply to a master’s program, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree. While not always required, you may wish to major in social work or a related discipline like psychology or sociology.
A graduate social work degree with a military focus will likely require you to complete a clinical internship before graduation. When searching for an internship, look for one at a military base or in a military clinic. Not only will this give you relevant experience, it will also help you decide if a career in military social work is a good fit for you.
Make sure the school you attend for your masters is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which simply ensures academic excellence. This association oversees social work education in the U.S. and has accredited more than 700 programs.
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- Four program tracks: Advanced Standing, Accelerated, Full Time and Extended
- Offered by USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, top-ranked graduate school by U.S. News & World Report (2019).1
- Features field education in or near students’ own communities.
- Four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy
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- Concentrate your degree in integrated practice or clinical practice
- CWRU’s Mandel School is a top-10 ranked graduate school of social work (2019).1
- Three paths of study are available to prepare social work leaders to work in clinical or community practice.
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3. Relevant field experience. With your MSW degree in hand, the next step is to gain field experience. Some military positions may require two to three years of supervised clinical social work experience, which you can gain through an internship or by volunteering. Be sure to check with appropriate personnel.
If possible, you may want to volunteer at a military organization or a non-profit that serves veterans and their families. Veteran service organizations like Disabled American Veterans (DAV), AmVets, and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) may provide valuable opportunities in which you can learn about the VA claim process.
4. Apply for licensure to practice. Finally, you’ll need a license to practice independently. Each state has different requirements, but in most cases, you’ll need a master’s degree and some clinical experience. You’ll also need to pass a licensure exam.
Military Social Work Program
While a general MSW may prepare you for a military social work job, some schools also offer on campus and online MSW programs with a military concentration. This may help prepare you for the unique challenges of a career in military social work and may offer field placement options to help you gain direct experience.
As service members and veterans might tell you, working in the military is a unique experience that comes with a distinct culture, environment, and lingo. Besides this, the service itself, especially in an active combat zone, is vastly different from what most civilians experience on a day-to-day basis—so it can be hard to relate.
This is where a graduate degree in military social work comes in. Courses focus on topics like intervening in military families, understanding the environment and culture of the military, and providing clinical care for service members and veterans. Other courses may cover mental health, substance abuse, and marital issues as they relate to the military. These classes may allow you to better understand, empathize with, and help military personnel and their families.
In addition to specialized courses, military concentrations often provide field education in military-affiliated organizations like schools, retirement homes and support centers. This direct experience can help give you a feel for the challenges and opportunities of military social work, and can come in handy later when you’re applying for jobs.
What is Military Social Work?
According to a 2015 article published in the Journal of Social Work Education: “Military social work is a specialized field of practice spanning the micro–macro continuum and requiring advanced social work knowledge and skills.”In plainer terms, military social work is the practice of providing social services to active members of the United States Armed Forces, military veterans, and families of military personnel. Those services may include counseling, leading support programs, helping veterans adjust to civilian life, and providing access to financial, educational, and healthcare resources.
What Do Military Social Workers Do?
Military social workers can wear many hats. Services they provide may include:
- Mental healthcare
- Individual and family counseling
- Access to financial and other resources
- Crisis intervention
- Integration support for veterans
- Veteran advocacy
As you now know, military life can be traumatic. Social workers help veterans and active service members work through mental and emotional challenges, providing therapy, risk assessments, and counseling, as well as access to supportive resources.
Many times, veterans need help adjusting to civilian life. Social workers may help to ease this transition. They also advocate for veterans with physical or mental disabilities, as well as those facing financial hardship. This may mean teaming up with nonprofits and coordinating with both state and federal governments. In some cases, advocacy includes leading military support programs at a community, state, or national level.
Sometimes, social workers step in to protect family members of military personnel. In situations involving domestic violence, substance abuse, or suicidal tendencies, social workers intervene to prevent things from escalating and to get treatment for those involved. They work in tandem with medical and health care professionals.
Salary and Career Outlook
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a higher-than-average projected growth rate of 13 percent for all social workers, from 2019 to 2029. Increased demand for healthcare and social services will drive this growth. It is important to note however, that job growth will vary by specialization.
Perhaps it’s your goal to work for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). This federal government agency is one of the world’s largest employers of psychologists and mental health experts. It is also the country’s largest employer of graduate-level social workers.
If you’re thinking of a career in military social work, you may want to consider earning potential. Military social work pay will vary from position to position, but you can kick off your research with pay data for social workers. The median annual salary for social workers was $50,470 in May 2019, according to the BLS. That same month, the lowest 10 percent of social workers earned less than $31,790, and the highest 10 percent took home more than $82,540.
Factors such as location, licensure, and specialty, can also affect salary. We’ve compiled some information to help you learn more about social work salaries.
Types of Military Social Work Careers
Military social workers serve in a wide variety of roles. Some are employed full-time by the U.S. Department of Defense and work on military bases, while others support the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Still, others operate private practices and see military personnel or veterans off-base.
Active Duty Military Social Workers
Some social workers live on base if they are active duty, with the rest of the personnel who are required to live on base. They may also be required to complete military training. These workers provide healthcare services to active-duty personnel including counseling, emotional support, and access to helpful resources. Active-duty social workers sometimes travel with a unit, or they may work at a medical facility that serves multiple units. Their main purpose is to help military personnel keep working at optimum health.
These workers can also lead or be a part of military support programs, such as the Navy Alcohol Abuse Prevention Program and the Navy Drug Detection and Deterrence program. Still, some social workers provide classes and workshops to help military personnel resolve conflict, balance emotions and manage stress.
Civilian Military Social Workers
Other social workers are employed at military support centers: organizations that help military personnel transition back to civilian life. Social workers at these centers are often called on to provide individual and family counseling, career and financial guidance, health services, domestic violence prevention, reintegration workshops and education resources. Civilian social workers are constantly advocating for their clients. Sometimes, that can look like helping their clients apply for benefits.
Veterans Affairs (VA) Social Workers
Many social workers end up working in veteran services. The VA currently employs more than 15,000 social workers. These workers are tasked with providing counseling and support to veterans and their families. If you choose this path, you can focus your work in primary medical care or on homeless programs, among other areas—the VA operates a number of programs and facilities.
Private Practice Social Workers
Other social workers have private practices that serve military personnel and veterans. They may work with active-duty members, but they can also see veterans and military personnel returning from deployment.
Military Social Work Resources
Just like there are many tools and programs available for military personnel facing tough times, resources exist to support military social workers. Here are a few of them:
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): This organization cares for veterans and their families by providing healthcare and other benefits. Their website has many pages with educational materials for both veterans and social workers, along with a comprehensive list of links including staff offices.
The National Center for PTSD is a program run by the VA dedicated to increasing understanding and treatment options for PTSD, and offers many resources to help social workers and veterans.
- National Association of Social Workers (NASW): This organization (the largest of its kind in the U.S.) aims to help social workers grow professionally and maintain high standards in social work across the nation. The NASW offers a wide range of educational materials on its website, including a dedicated section for military social workers. They also offer webinars. You can join the association to receive benefits, networking tools, and other professional resources.
- Military OneSource: This website is a part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s network of support for the military community. It provides valuable information on topics like housing, finance, education, and employment. Social workers may find it helpful as they guide military individuals and families toward the correct resources.
Click here to view more military resources for social workers.
Information on this page was last retrieved in July 2020.