Military and Veterans Affairs Social Workers and How to Become One

The challenges of functioning in a military family… they’re nothing new. In All Those Secrets of the World, children’s author Jane Yolen told a story based on the day her father left for World War II and the day he returned. When the father was deployed, the younger child was a baby. When he returned, the child was old enough to shout at the apparent stranger to get away from his mama.

Military social workers support military families when men or women are deployed and also when they return. Young children frequently act out when a parent leaves. Family members of all ages fear that the person won’t come back. There are role adjustments to be made. When the person does return, there is another adjustment process. Teenagers may feel they don’t really know their parent.

Military social workers support military families when men or women are deployed and also when they return.

Of course it’s often the case, when the serviceperson isn’t traveling to a war zone, that the whole family moves. This creates its own set of challenges: children who struggle to form lasting friendships, spouses who have little opportunity to develop their own careers. Social workers offer therapy and counseling to the whole family.

But then there’s war itself – one of life’s greatest traumas. Some social workers are stationed with troops, helping them process loss or trauma. There are also issues like substance abuse that must be addressed. Many people do abuse substances, even without the stresses of active duty, but in the military, it can be more difficult to ask for help.

Assisting Veterans

Military social work is entwined with veterans social work. The transition back to civilian life is especially difficult for those who have been injured in the line of duty or who suffer from trauma disorders or unresolved grief. Social workers help veterans with many concerns. They assist them in applying for benefits from the VA or other organizations. They may also help them find housing assistance. Those who have complex mental or psychiatric needs may have a case manager who is with them long term.

Social workers assist veterans with a variety of life issues, including those that are not directly related to time spent in the service. Support is still available, even years down the line. Veterans may get help from social workers when it’s time for long term planning: advanced directives, long term care.

But even that’s not the whole potential scope of practice. Military social work is not limited to direct practice. Social workers are also advocates on a macro level: for instance, working to extend benefits to same sex partners.


Social workers may assist military families and veterans with either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work. A BSW may link individuals with resources, make referrals, and/or serve as case manager for those with high needs. However, some roles – like psychotherapist – are only available to those with graduate education. Graduate programs have more room for specialty coursework.

Fordham University’s top-ranked School of Social Work offers an online MSW program that prepares students for relevant, integrated practice with all populations. GRE scores not required.

Capella University is now offering an online Master of Social Work that is in CSWE candidacy status. The MSW program helps prepare students to enter the general or clinical practice role (in most states). Capella also offers an online Doctor of Social Work.

An accredited social work program will prepare a person to work with a wide range of people, not just military families. However, some schools do offer electives or even a sub-concentration in military or veterans’ issues. A critical component is the field placement.

In 2010, the Council on Social Work Education put out a publication titled Advanced Social Work Practice in Military Social Work. The CSWE noted that, while advanced practitioners in military social work might be placed in federal agencies like the VA or DoD, they might work for other social service or allied health organizations that have programs to serve these populations.

Continuing education is also important for military social workers. The professional social work organization, NASW, has a number of resources.

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Licensing and Certification

All states license clinical social workers. A majority license social workers in specific practice areas.

Where to Learn More

Army Medicine – Social Work in the U.S. Army

United States Department of Veterans Affairs – VA Social Work

Association of VA Social Workers

NASW – Social Work and Service Members