Military Social Work

military vet meeting with a social worker

Many war veterans suffer serious mental health disorders ranging from post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression, which can lead to substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse and suicide. Military spouses and children also experience traumatic stresses during pre-deployment, deployment and reunion phases. The Military Social Work sub-concentration prepares students to care for service members, veterans and their families, helping them cope with the stresses of military life. In addition, students learn how to help community-based agencies identify and serve military populations in their community.

Field Placements

The military sub-concentration — which can be integrated with any of the concentration areas offered through the Virtual Academic Center — provides a range of placement options for students interested in working with military populations. Students will complete 550 clock hours of an internship in various approved settings. Practicum sites are based on the availability of the agency to accept a student and a field instructor to provide supervision; therefore, no guarantees are extended to students on a specific type of agency that would be arranged. Please note that only students residing on base are candidates for placement on base.

If a placement site does not serve a military population, the field experience will be supplemented with a mandatory Virtual Clinical Experience (VCE) in the online classroom. With VCE, students meet in small groups with a faculty member to work through simulated cases with military clients (played by actors). Students are supervised and given immediate feedback as they engage with the client.

Students in a non-military field practicum will also participate in an Internship with a Military Lens (IML). Supervised by a field instructor, students identify underserved military populations in their community and build capacity at their agency to provide services. With less than 50 percent of service members and their families served by the Veterans Health Administration, IML offers students a great opportunity to build unique and important services in their community.

Teaching Clinical Skills Virtually

To help prepare students to interact with real clients, the school’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families, in partnership with the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, has developed two virtual teaching tools using avatars that help students practice counseling techniques with veterans, service members and their families. Available soon in the Virtual Academic Center, the role-playing simulation programs – the Virtual Patient and Motivational Interviewing Learning Environment and Simulation (MILES) – use voice recognition technology and human voice recordings to emulate the symptoms of a number of a clinical conditions, including depression and post-traumatic stress, enabling the avatars to respond to a student’s open-ended questions that might be used in therapy. The realistic role-playing allows students to hone their clinical skills.

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  • Clinical Practice with the Military Family: Understanding and Intervening
  • The purpose of this course is to understand the military culture within which military families function, the stressors such as deployment that they navigate, and the diversity of military family structures and how a range of diversity filters can impact the military family and military culture. The different military contexts (i.e., active duty, guard/reserve, veteran) are explored. Ethical issues for working in this environment are considered. Theory-based and research-informed strategies to intervene with military families are reviewed. Military family policies are examined and critiqued. Family life cycle interactions with the military demands are discussed. Students completing this course will have a more in-depth understanding of and ability to work with the military and the military families that are a vital part of society.


    Military Culture and the Workplace Environment

    Recent developments in convention, asymmetric, and military operations other than war have created new problems and requirements for social workers and a shortfall of qualified clinicians to work with the military and a constituency needing service. The competencies required for social workers working with the military, veterans and active duty members, families, and organizational decision-makers, represent both a distinctive niche and critical expansion of talent. Without military-specific knowledge and skills, social workers could be seen as outsiders, potential threats, and poorly prepared practitioners who may inhibit the dictums of the social work profession. Therefore, it is imperative that these social workers have a clear frame of reference for understanding the military context, relevant cultural dimensions/levels, and a historical framework for military social work to apply to today’s military.

    This frame of reference includes a general understanding of cultural dimensions and levels and the relevance and application of culture to the military. Culture is defined by Kluckhohn (1951) as patterned ways of thinking, feeling, and reacting, acquired and transmitted mainly by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values. Using the core features of a culture (Laungani, 2007) the military will be examined from perspectives including its background and organization, social systems, core values and traditions (norms for personal, familial, and social conduct, patterns of socialization, and gender roles), artifacts, language, and socially acceptable practices.


  • Clinical Practice with Service Members and Veterans
  • This course addresses the needs of active duty, retired, and deployed servicemembers and veterans at different developmental phases of the military life course, both holistically and within the context of their families and communities. Military social work students (per CSWE-2010 guidelines) will be prepared to facilitate clients ways of coping with a range of physical health, mental health and psychosocial issues. Students learn to identify these concerns along with the risk and protective factors associated with navigating deployment and combat stressors. Those servicemembers who are bolstered by their resilience and protective factors often return from deployment with a healthy transition, while others exposed to high intensity combat exposure and repeated deployments may develop injuries to their physical health, mental health and psychosocial coping.

    While the course specifically highlights mental health and psychosocial needs of the Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) Veterans, it also addresses the treatment needs of combat Veterans from WWII, Korea, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, and Somalia Conflicts. Students will also learn to understand and apply evidence-based clinical approaches that address signature injuries noted. Managing transference/countertransference phenomena and attending to secondary trauma are central. Attention will be paid to issues of diversity including specific issues relevant in work with culturally diverse client groups. Addressing stigma and barriers to service will help students establish alliances with their clients effectively. Finally, students will learn to use the range of practice models in a phase-oriented approach that values the therapeutic relationship, cultural responsiveness and theoretical grounding.


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