This guide is a deep dive into what it takes to become a military social worker. The guide will outline what a military social worker does and how to pursue this career, as well as information that potential military social workers will want to know, such as salary ranges, important certifications, and the overall job outlook for social workers serving the military community.
Becoming a military social worker
Military social work involves practice with active duty members of the armed forces, veterans served by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), state national guard and reserves, and noncombatant service members working for some federal agencies (such as the Department of Homeland Security and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). While some military social workers are active duty members within the armed services (and even deployed worldwide), others are not.
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Military social workers may be called upon to provide assistance to active duty personnel in numerous situations, from preparing for deployment to addressing combat-related health impacts (such as traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)). As veterans transition to civilian life, social workers play a critical role in helping with the challenges that can arise upon returning to war. For both of these groups and their families, the social worker’s person-in-environment perspective is utilized to guide and inform the helping process.
As explained by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), “chances are that nearly all social workers will serve this population in some capacity, whether through mental and behavioral health therapy, social services, housing, health care, care coordination or a variety of other services.” To be effective, military social workers must build the expertise to address the unique challenges faced by active duty personnel, veterans and their families.
When considering this profession there is some important information to keep in mind.
How to become a military social worker
- Obtain a bachelor’s degree Military social workers must possess a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) or a related field, such as counseling or psychology.
- Gain experience with military populations Military social workers often have a personal connection to the armed forces (such as through their own service or that of a family member). Others gain this through internships working with veterans, active duty personnel or their families.
- Pursue a master’s degree The VA is the single largest employer of master’s level social workers and a masters degree is required for clinical positions with the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
- Build specialized knowledge in military social work Masters level students can gain this knowledge through field placements, such as at the VA. The VA traineeship program partners with over 230 graduate schools and approximately 1,500 MSW students participate in this training each year. Some students build their knowledge base through coursework exploring topics pertinent to military social work, such as trauma, substance abuse, severe stress, or anxiety.
- Earn clinical licensure To work in private practice and in many positions, licensure as a clinical social worker is required. The specific requirements for clinical licensure vary by state, but for social workers this generally requires at least two years post-MSW experience, passing the ASWB clinical examination, and a specified number of hours of supervision by a licensed social worker.
What is a military social worker?
As explained by the Council on Social Work Education, “military social work involves direct practice; policy and administrative activities; and advocacy including providing prevention, treatment, and rehabilitative services to service members, veterans, their families, and their communities.” Social workers also help by creating programs and policies to improve the quality of life for these groups. Finally, military social workers help members of the military transition from active to veteran status.
A career as a military social worker can include serving as a commissioned member of the armed forces, employment with the VA (or other government agency serving this population, such as Department of Defense), or within the context of private practice. Being a military social worker may look different depending on the specific practice area.
In the armed forces, social workers are commissioned officers that provide critical support to their fellow soldiers, including in deployments or disaster zones. According to the NASW, Air Force clinical social workers help families “cope with typical challenges as well as ones unique to the military,” and plan and implement multiple programs. In the Army, clinical social workers serve in active and reserve components and perform clinical, administrative and research functions. In the Navy, social workers counsel service members and theeir families as they prepare to deploy, connect them to support, offer crisis intervention, and lead workshops. Those wanting to learn more can visit social work career pages for the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
The VA is the single largest employer of master’s level social workers in the United States. At the VA, social workers provide an array of services to veterans and their families. This can include crisis intervention and mental health therapy for clinical conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and drug and alcohol addiction. Military social workers at the VA also help with navigating resources, advocacy, and benefit assistance. Social workers play a critical role by addressing a wide range of needs that veterans may experience when returning home from war. More information about the services social workers private at the VA can be found here.
Military social workers may also work in private practice and focus on serving military members and their spouses, children, parents or other family members. In many instances, this could involve participating with TRICARE, the health program for uniformed service members and their families. Social workers may also work in veterans service organizations, such as the American Legion or American Red Cross.
Military therapist requirements and skills
- Bachelor’s degree, often in social work
- Masters degree in social work
- Population characteristics of military service persons and their families
- Military culture (including mission readiness, service, honor and cohesion), rules and regulations (such as Uniform Code of Military Justice)
- Physical and mental health issues for current and former military personnel, such as traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Benefits and services available to military members, veterans and their families through the VA and Department of Defense and other agencies (such as housing, financial subsidies, education assistance, counseling, medical programs etc.)
- Listening, empathy, and interpersonal skills
- High level of professionalism, including awareness of military standards and professional boundaries for active duty and veteran personnel
- Clinical mental health skills, including diagnosis, evaluation and treatment
- Ability to provide counseling for mental and behavioral health, commonly in areas such as separation, loss, grief, stress and anxiety, depression, anger, intimate partner violence, etc.
The Council on Social Work Education’s guidelines for advanced practice in military social work; and NASW’s Standards for Social Work Practice with Service Members, Veterans, & Their Families are helpful resources for those wanting to learn more.
What do military social workers do?
The typical duties of a military social worker will be greatly impacted by a number of factors, including whether the social worker is an active member of the armed services (such as an officer in the Army, Navy or Air Force) and the work setting (such as in deployment, private practice or the VA). Those wanting to learn more about military social work as a uniformed member of the armed forces, can review this article in Encyclopedia of Social Work and the profiles by a Navy social worker, Air Force social worker, and Army social worker.
This hypothetical explores a day for a military social worker at the VA:
A veteran returns to the VA Hospital for the third time in the last two months. He has been experiencing ongoing struggles after experiencing a traumatic brain injury that ended his service and left him with physical and mental impacts.
The military social worker begins by assessing the veteran’s psychological, biological, social and spiritual functioning, both in terms of strengths and needs. She approaches the veteran aware of potential stigma soldiers associate with seeking mental health treatment and sensitive to the values, such as honor and strength, intertwined with military culture.
The social worker begins to formulate a treatment plan to help meet this client’s needs. This includes screening for the veteran’s high risk needs and the social worker is able to make referrals for housing and food supports. The social worker also highlights the availability of individual and group therapy that could assist the veteran.
Another critical role of the military social worker is to coordinate the larger plan of care for this veteran. The social worker is able to note the interplay between this veteran’s TBI and PTSD and the need to ensure that both are treated effectively. This involves providing education to the veteran and use of the social worker’s case management skills to ensure the treatment approach is integrated to address the whole person.
By the end of this first meeting, the social worker has been able to make an immediate impact in the life of this wounded warrior. A short-term plan is in place to ensure that his basic needs are being met and a longer term care of support is outlined.
Military social worker job description
As explained by a resource produced by the U.S. Department of Defense, the job duties of an active duty military social worker include:
- Utilizing professional social work practices to provide mental health services to military personnel and families
- Assessing needs for social and psychological support in individuals, groups and families
- Evaluating, diagnosing and treating psychological disorders
- Providing consultation to officials
For those considering military social work at the VA, the duties can include:
- Assessing the needs of veterans and families to create treatment plans
- Crisis intervention, including counseling services
- Screening veterans with high risk needs, such as homeless or repeated hospitalizations
- Coordinating discharge planning and ensuring continuity of care
- Case management, particularly the coordination of any needed support (such as counseling services)
- Advocate for the interests of military personnel, veterans and their families to access resources and services
- Education for veterans related to their conditions, the available services and programs, and other important skills (such as healthy eating or stress management)
- Individual, group and family therapy
Additional military social worker special training and certifications
Social workers often pursue special training or advanced certifications in military social work, and some schools offer a concentration in this area. More information about school specific programs can be found through this NASW resource.
The NASW offers three military social work certifications: Military Service Member, Veterans and their Families (MFV) – Social Worker certification, MFV – Clinical Social Worker certification and MVF-Advanced Social Worker certification.
A wide range of additional training is available depending on the work setting. Military social workers that are enlisted in the military will pursue advanced individual training after completing their basic training. Similarly, the Association of Veterans Affairs Social Workers offers a range of continuing education programs, including a leadership program. Military social workers in private practice may pursue training in specific models (such as cogntive behavioral therapy for suicide or PTSD) through organizations such as the Center for Deployment Psychology.
Military social worker career outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates an 11 percent increase in jobs for social workers between 2018-2028. This is significantly higher than the 5 percent growth projected for all occupations.
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide specific data for military social workers, there are many veterans with an unmet need for mental health support that will increase demand for social workers with this expertise. Indeed, in a report from January 2018 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine estimated that nearly half of the 4 million veterans from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have unmet mental health needs. Similarly, research published in the Clinical Psychology Review focused on the widespread impacts of transition stress that all military personnel can experience when returning from war or to civilian life. Those wanting to learn more about these needs can see articles in the Military Times exploring difficulty recruiting mental health professionals and the shortfalls in meeting veterans needs.
This increasing awareness of and attention to the mental health needs of veterans, along with the VA being the largest employer of master’s level social workers, is good news for military social workers. Students considering this field should also note that they are eligible to receive one year of special hiring consideration if they participate in the VA’s clinical traineeship program during their masters programs.
Military social worker salary
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not publish specific data for military social workers. The U.S. Department of Defense specifies that the average salary for enlisted military social workers is $102,704.
USAjobs.gov, the official website for U.S. government jobs, specifies a salary range of $51,440-$81,696 for social work positions at the VA in 2020. The biggest factors in determining salary were whether the applicant held clinical licensure and the amount of post-MSW work experience.
Military social workers in private practice will earn salaries that are comparable to other clinical social workers in private practice. According to ziprecruiter.com, the nationwide average annual salary for private practice social workers in 2020 was $85,831.