Military Social Workers at War: Their Experiences and the Educational Content That Helped Them

By Simmons, Catherine A.; DeCoster, Vaughn | Journal of Social Work Education, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Military Social Workers at War: Their Experiences and the Educational Content That Helped Them


Simmons, Catherine A., DeCoster, Vaughn, Journal of Social Work Education


SOCIAL WORKERS HAVE a long, proud history of service in most branches of the United States military, often as commissioned officers with graduate practice degrees (Daley, 1999). As a unique subgroup of the social work profession, these men and women face extraordinary challenges that few social workers experience. The most evident challenge is wartime (combat) social work practice. Although only a few social workers actually deploy to war zones, their experiences and educational needs are a timely topic to civilian social work practitioners and educators. Moreover, these graduate-level practitioners are more than just an interesting subgroup of the social work profession. In many cases, deployed military social workers are the first mental health providers to work with soldiers. Once these veterans return home, many will be seen in social work programs for various social service and mental health-related problems, in agencies comprised mostly of non-military, civilian social workers. For this reason, the activities and educational experiences of deployed military social workers is important for civilian practitioners to appreciate. The current qualitative phenomenological study describes the experience of U.S. military social workers deployed to the war in Iraq and the educational experiences that helped them in the combat zone.

Background

Images of the war in Iraq can be seen daily on U.S. television and read about in most newspapers. Across professions, the war is a controversial topic. Indeed, the National Association of Social Workers took a stance that the invasion of Iraq was unjust (Mizrahi, 2002, 2003, 2005). However, a large number of graduate trained master's-level (e.g., MSW or MSSW) social workers currently serve as members of the U.S. military, performing a variety of human service functions for the men and women fighting in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), combat operations in Afghanistan). These men and women experience professional and ethical challenges that may appear relevant only to the military social work profession. However, with the large number of veterans returning from the Middle East, most social workers practicing in the United States are likely to see clients who have come into contact with military social work at some level.

Military Social Work

Social workers have been working with the U.S. military since World War I and as uniformed members of the armed forces since World War II (Daley, 1999). Currently, more than 300 social workers serve in the U.S. active duty and reserve force and more than 600 civilian social workers provide direct support to U.S. military members and their families (Daley, 1999, 2003). Even though a long, proud history of military social work exists, relatively little has been published related to this unique subset of the social work profession. According to a literature search that included PsychInfo, PsycARTICLES, Social Service Abstracts, and Social Work Abstracts and the keywords social work and military, four empirical articles (Applewhite, Brintzenhofe-Szoc, Hamlin, & Timberlake, 1995; Loewenberg, 1992; Pehrson & Hamlin, 2002; Pehrson & Thornley, 1993), two conceptual articles (Daley, 2003; West, Mercer, & Altheimer, 1993), two edited books (Maas, 1951; Daley, 1999), and one entry in the Encyclopedia of Social Work (Garber & McNelis, 1995) were located. It is from this literature search that the following empirical works are discussed.

Only a small group of empirical studies have been published to date that address the experiences and efforts of wartime social work and military social workers. In the first of such studies, Loewenberg (1992) describes ethical dilemmas faced by Israeli civilian social workers while being attacked by Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War using five case studies and citing three underlying causes for the dilemmas, including (1) competing values, (2) competing loyalties, and (3) ambiguity and uncertainty. …

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