Military service members, veterans and their families have special needs that may necessitate working with a social worker. For example, military personnel may be dealing with psychological and emotional disorders, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, especially if they have been fighting on the front lines of war. Families of veterans may be struggling with domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse or suicide. Military social workers must be prepared for the complexity that comes with treating both active-duty and civilian clients who are part of military culture.
Regardless of specialization, it is estimated that all social workers will see clients from a military background at some point in their career.
What is Military Social Work?
Military social work is a specialized field of practice that provides necessary support and interventions to military personnel, retirees, their spouses and their dependents through private practice, active service, or work with veterans services. Military social workers receive specialized training that allows them to serve the needs of military clients. They must understand the individual’s role within military and veteran cultures and take the complex responsibilities of military personnel into account when making assessments. It’s also important to know the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the history of military social work, as well as what is currently happening in the social work field.
Clinical social workers who work in a military setting must be prepared to address the mental, physical and emotional needs of military personnel. Clinical social workers must also be prepared to treat the needs of veterans from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and conflicts in the Persian Gulf and Somalia. Members of the Department of Homeland Security and the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service are also served by military social workers.
Individuals with a master's in social work are eligible for positions as commissioned officers in the military or military reserve. Job duties include providing direct services, such as counseling, crisis intervention and debriefing after critical events. Military social workers also plan and implement disease prevention and health promotion programs for service members, conduct research on social issues and assist in the training of medical personnel. Training for military social work includes access to the most current treatment approaches, the opportunity to consult with experts in the field and encouragement for professional growth through continuing education.
Here is a look at the more specific involvement of social workers in the different branches of the Armed Forces:
Types of Social Work in the Armed Forces
There is a great need for social workers to work with military members, veterans, and their families. The unique challenges and opportunities with each branch of the Armed Forces presents an opportunity to help this community in some capacity, whether through social services, mental and behavioral health therapy, housing, care coordination, or a variety of other services.
Social Work in the Air Force
Military life can be stressful on Airmen and their families. Air Force Clinical Social Workers focus on the health of Airmen, helping them to improve their quality of life, both during service and after. Social workers in the Air Force provide diagnostic services, offer counseling and guidance, and are a source for Airmen to rely on during their hardest times.
Education needed: Minimum of a Master’s degree in social work from a graduate school accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. A minimum of 24 months of experience in clinical social work is also a requirement.
Social Work in the Army
Social work in the army gives you a place in the Army Medical Service Corps as an officer, with access to the most sophisticated treatments and technology available to both the government and the private sector. Army social workers may be eligible for loan repayment under the Health Professionals Loan Repayment Program, as well as a $40,000 cash bonus just for enlisting.
Education needed: Master’s degree in social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CWSE). For active duty and reserve, you are an Army Medical Service Corps officer, and you must be a U.S. citizen between 21 and 42 years of age.
Social Work in the Navy
Navy social workers prepare service members for deployment, support their families and provide other services in things like crisis intervention and trauma support, and workshops in transitioning from active duty to civilian life.
Education needed: Navy social workers must have a Master’s in social work (MSW) from a school accredited by the CWSE and be willing to serve a minimum of three years of Active Duty.
Social Work in the VA
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is the largest employer of Master’s level social workers in the United States, with social workers making an impact in every part of the system. You can find social workers offering services to veterans and their families including: advocacy, crisis intervention, mental health therapy, rehabilitation and much more. VA social workers are leaders in mental health, geriatrics and extended care, voluntary services and veteran-centered care. They create and implement programs for those returning from Active Duty, they ensure needed services are in place for military members and they are able to make an impact in the field with opportunities that are not available in the private sector.
Social Work in the Public Health
Social workers in U.S. Public Health work in the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps to provide services and needed support to the Armed Forces. In 2010, they provided needed emergency behavioral health care to Fort Bragg, while expanding their services to 24/7 care to meet the needs of the population.
Military Social Work Jobs
The U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines use the services of both military and civilian social workers to provide social services and crisis intervention support. Some civilian military social workers help military service members and veterans through private practice, while others are employed by veterans’ service organizations or other military-related agencies.
Social workers who work on base, in the field and in military hospitals help wounded personnel adjust to injury and reintegrate into military or civilian life. They also help facilitate their clients' ability to cope with a wide range of psychological and social issues. In addition to working with service members, military social workers provide general support for the family of active-duty service members.
Military bases for each branch of the military have Service Centers that are staffed with social workers and other types of human services professionals and volunteers. Services that are typically available for family members include individual and family counseling, financial management assistance, relocation support and services for family members with special needs.
In the U.S. , officers with the Social Work job title hold positions within the Department of Social Work, the Family Advocacy Program, the Community Mental Health Service, and the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Program. Similar positions can be found in other military branches.
Salary and Career Outlook
Social workers are expected to see 15 percent job growth between 2016 and 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. While in Active Duty, Clinical Social Workers receive Military benefits, such as training, 30 days paid vacation per year, flights and more. Military social workers are also available for retirement benefits from the military as part of their service to the Armed Forces.
Military social workers are considered part of the Allied Health segment of healthcare within the Armed Forces. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics data from 2018, there were 68,365 Healthcare Officers across all branches of service. This also includes doctors, nurses, dentists and psychologists, among other healthcare professions.
Become a Military Social Worker
Earning a master’s degree in social work with a military social work concentration is the best way to prepare for a career working with service members and veterans. This specialization is available at several universities, including our partner the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, which offers coursework in military culture and military clinical practice as part of its MSW degree, and is accredited by the CWSE. The concentration also provides a range of field placement options that allow students to work directly with military populations.
Social workers who are trained to work in an advanced practice area such as military social work are eligible to earn an Advanced Practice Specialty Credential from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Both the MVF-CSW (Military Service Member, Veterans and their Families – Clinical Social Worker) and the MVF-ASW (Military Service Member, Veterans and their Families – Advanced Social Worker) require a master’s degree in social work and three years of professional military social work experience.
Many schools offer Master of Social Work programs that qualify individuals for a career as a military social worker. The main requirement of all of the Armed Forces is a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CWSE).