Military Social Work

Since 2001, more than 2.6 million service members have been deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. Of those who return, it is estimated that as many as 30 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or traumatic brain injury (TBI). For these service members and their families, the struggles of combat do not end when their boots touch back down on American soil. In fact, their battles are only just beginning.

Military social workers play an integral role for our country’s bravest — our soldiers. For those facing deployment, those returning from active duty, and for their families who struggle with the anxiety and guilt of staying behind, military social workers provide support, structure and strength.

With the Military Social Work sub-concentration, the only program of its kind offered by a civilian research university, you will explore strategies for helping those who have dedicated their lives to protecting ours.

The Military Social Work sub-concentration will prepare you to:

  • Care for service members, veterans and their families who are dealing with a range of physical, mental and psychosocial issues.
  • Better understand military culture.
  • Learn about the systems of care in place for military personnel before and during deployments and the transition back home.
  • Assist returning service members with finding health and employment services.
  • Work with local agencies to identify and serve military populations in their communities.

Social workers trained in the Military Social Work sub-concentration work in a range of settings, offering services such as:

  • Military to civilian life reintegration support
  • Crisis intervention support
  • Individual and family counseling
  • Financial management assistance
  • Relocation support

The current social work labor force, including practice with veterans, cannot keep pace with demand. Social workers offer a particular skill set and knowledge base that is beneficial, if not indispensable, to service members, veterans and their loved ones.


“As a military spouse and volunteer, I’ve seen how devastating the wounds of war and service in general can be to individuals and their families. I knew that the opportunity to receive education and training for the needs of this unique and underserved population would be very valuable to me as a clinician.”

Christine Halterman
MSW@USC Student, Mental Health Concentration, Military Social Work Sub-Concentration

Sub-Concentration Requirements

  • 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.

    Clinical Professor Marleen Wong discusses the importance of helping military families cope with the stress they endure when a spouse or parent is deployed for service.

  • 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.

Field Placement

The school strives to place military social work students in a local setting that enables them to work with military personnel, military retirees, spouses or other military dependents whenever possible to support their interest in serving veterans and their families as a career goal. You can learn more about field placement here >>

If you are ready to speak with us about your career in social work, contact an admissions counselor at 1.877.700.4MSW or sswvac@usc.edu to get started.

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