Military Social Work

Every day veterans, active service members and their families must deal with challenges unique to military life. Military social workers play an integral role in helping them connect to the care and support they need. These specialized social workers support military personnel facing deployment and the anxiety of active duty and veterans coping with the physical and psychological effects upon returning to their communities. They also work with families who are stretched emotionally and financially as well as military-impacted schools and communities.

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 is designed to complement any concentration area and 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:

  • Mental health therapy, from physical illness and disease to family issues and traumatic experiences
  • Military to civilian life reintegration support
  • Crisis intervention
  • Individual and family counseling
  • Resource navigation, such as financial, housing and benefit assistance
  • Aging veteran support and advocacy

The current social work labor force, including practice with veterans, cannot keep pace with demand. Our engagement in wars — past, present and future — will continue to create a need for a more robust workforce that is ready and able to tackle new challenges. 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

As a student in the Military Social Work sub-concentration — which can be added to any concentration — you will complete the following courses:

  • 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.

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  • 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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Field Placement

Students in the Military Social Work sub-concentration may work with service members or veterans across a range of settings, such as homeless shelters, military-connected schools, substance abuse clinics or retirement communities. You can learn more about field placement here.

USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families (CIR)

The USC School of Social Work is committed to helping the millions of service members and their families struggling to cope with military life. CIR, which inspired and informed the creation of the Military Social Work sub-concentration, strives to enhance the visibility and impact of research, education and outreach to inform decision-makers on policy issues affecting veterans and their families. Watch this video and learn more about CIR and its mission.

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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