Social Justice

What is military social work? Supporting our homeland heroes

Military social work 


After serving our country, many military service members find themselves in need of assistance. They may need help managing the transition back to civilian life, maintaining housing, navigating family issues or accessing necessary health care service.

In fact, U.S. service members and veterans face an increased risk of mental health issues upon returning from combat experiences. They’re also potentially more susceptible to substance abuse disorders or alcohol dependency.

Fortunately, there are specialists out there who are trained to help. Dr. Ellen Belluomini, assistant professor of social work at University of Massachusetts Global, says all social workers should be well-versed in working with the military, as military social work skills are needed at every agency. Approximately 7.6 percent of the U.S. population consists of military veterans. When you factor in current service members and the families of service members and veterans alike, it’s clear that a good portion of the U.S. population is directly impacted by military service.

“What we’re trying to do is help people understand that military social work is a different intersection that we all need to be aware of,” she offers. “Military social work isn’t just for military installations anymore. Military social work is for everyone.”

What does military social work involve?

While the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs have made access to high-quality mental health care more of a priority for service members, veterans and their families, many veterans seek services in the civilian sector. And yet, a RAND Corporation report found just 13 percent of surveyed civilian providers met the threshold of cultural competency when it comes to serving military populations. Social workers must have a level of familiarity with military and veteran culture to provide the appropriate care.

Some experts think social work programs need to incorporate coursework related to military and veteran culture into their curricula. Some programs have begun to answer that call. At University of Massachusetts Global, for example, social work students take an encompassing military social work course.

“We go over all the cultural components social workers should become familiar with,” Dr. Belluomini says. Students get a small taste of what the military experience is actually like by participating in a simulated parallel process in the course, relying on combat buddies for support and experiencing squad missions to demonstrate the need for group cohesion. It’s designed to mimic the military experience.

“The first class is boot camp, then they serve active duty and finally transition out into civilian population,” Dr. Belluomini explains, adding that there’s particular emphasis on the final phase. “Transitioning out of the military is one of the most difficult things for a military member to do, because military life is so vastly different from civilian life.”

Both active and former military personnel can encounter psychological and emotional difficulties from their experiences. In addition to experiencing PTSD, depression or anxiety, service members may deal with isolation, insomnia or substance abuse. They may also struggle with unemployment, financial hardship or marital conflicts.

Social workers can help military clients address these difficulties with individual or family counseling, while helping clients access available resources and education services. Military social workers also have an opportunity to help develop programs and initiatives designed to better serve military personnel and their families.

What types of military social work jobs are there?

All social workers will work with our military population in some capacity. But if you feel a particular urge to dedicate your career to working with service members, veterans and their families, there are a few more specific options you might consider. 

Civilian military social work

Social workers trained in military competencies may work with service members, veterans and their families in various organizations within the civilian community. Their military social work skills can be used in the areas of substance abuse, mental health, child welfare, homelessness or within employee assistance programs.

If you’re curious about a position in civilian military social work, there are a handful of places to look. The various branches of the U.S. military have specific resources in place to offer support to their personnel in civilian environments, typically when they return from deployment. Trained military social workers are needed in community-based clinics, veterans’ centers, schools, civilian healthcare organizations, corporations and private practices.

Social workers in this sphere may also consider the following branches of civilian-based support centers designed to serve military members and their families:

Social workers are among a team of other human services professionals employed at these organizations. Civilian military social workers can also work in private practice environments.

Active duty military social work

Each branch of the military provides mental and emotional health services to their active duty personnel. They employ military social workers within medical and mental health departments on their military bases.

Some of these social workers are civilians, while others have completed military training and serve as active duty service members, traveling alongside a specific unit. Regardless of military status, the goal of military social workers in this sphere is to offer clients the support needed so that they can function most effectively in their jobs.

Veteran social work

Military social workers also have an opportunity to focus their services on our veteran population. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employs thousands of social workers who are equipped to help military veterans with a host of issues.

Among other things, they can provide veterans with the following services:

  • Assisting with financial or housing struggles
  • Helping navigate military benefits from the VA, Social Security and other organizations
  • Developing treatment approaches related to mental health struggles
  • Counseling related to marriage or family problems
  • Providing guidance and resources for substance abuse issues
  • Assisting with the process of moving to an inpatient facility
  • Acting as an advocate for your needs and preferences among your team of medical providers

Military social workers who work with veterans also provide ample support and services to family members. In addition to operating at VA medical centers, these social workers can be found at community-based clinics, veterans’ centers and private clinics and practices.

Are you prepared to serve as a social worker?

If you’re looking for a career that can allow you to give back to our homeland heroes, military social work could be the perfect way for you to make a difference. Intrigued? Then it might be time to start thinking about next steps.

Whether you’re starting your educational journey from scratch or you’ve already earned an undergraduate degree, University of Massachusetts Global can help you steer your career toward social work. Check out our robust library of social work resources. Or for more information on an undergraduate degree path, check out the Bachelor of Arts in Social Work program. If you already have a bachelor’s degree—even if it’s not in social work— consider the Master of Social Work


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