Civilian Social Work with Veterans Returning from Iraq and Afghanistan: A Call to Action

By Rubin, Allen | Social Work, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Civilian Social Work with Veterans Returning from Iraq and Afghanistan: A Call to Action


Rubin, Allen, Social Work


In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attack and tragic collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York City, President George W. Bush promised to retaliate against the perpetrators of that national trauma. Not since the attack on Pearl Harbor seven decades earlier had our populace been so unified in its support of retaliation and so willing to make the personal sacrifices that might entail. Rather than focus a military retaliation primarily on the al-Qaeda perpetrators of the terrorist attack, however, the Bush administration persuaded the nation to support an invasion of Iraq.

Rather than ask the nation as a whole to make sacrifices to support the war effort, President Bush encouraged the general public to go shopping. Rather than raise taxes to fund the costs of the war, the U.S. Congress left unchanged tax cuts that mainly benefited the affluent. Rather than reinstate a draft to supply the military personnel that would be needed for what came to be known as the "Global War on Terror," the government relied exclusively on our small, all-volunteer armed forces. Doing so necessitated an unprecedented reliance on multiple deployments of National Guard and reservist personnel to provide the troops needed to carry out the longest combat engagement in our nation's history. It also necessitated an unprecedented reliance on lengthier tours of combat duty. The consequent burden experienced by the troops was compounded by the absence of "front lines" during these long tours of duty. Danger was ubiquitous and could come at any time from a roadside bomb or from enemies dressed as civilians. Moreover, the ubiquity of potential attack put female service members in combat situations they had not experienced in previous wars.

Needless to say, all this has placed great and unprecedented strains on our military personnel and their families, who have borne the brunt of our nation's sacrifice for the war. As expressed in a New York Times commentary by Timothy Egan (2012),

   the yellow banners, the halftime tributes, the
   bloviating by politicians of both parties--it's
   so easy for the 99 percent of us who aren't
   serving in the military to act like we support
   them.... Those 2.3 million men and women
   who served in one of the two wars ... will be
   trying to live with the horrors they saw and
   felt for the rest of their lives.... Their suicide
   rate--38 per 100,000--is more than three
   times that of the population at large. [A] Pew
   poll found that 37 percent of the war veterans
   suffered from a degree of post-traumatic stress.
   ... If the Pew poll is accurate, more than
   800,000 veterans are re-entering society with
   some form of psychological trauma.

In light of our professional expertise and values, social work practitioners and educators have both the capability and obligation to do more than the general public to support and meet the needs of our returning troops and their families. Although military personnel, veterans, and their families have been served by social workers throughout the history of our profession, perhaps never before has the call for social workers to help this target population been as compelling as it is today. And this help is needed not just from uniformed military social workers or from social workers employed by the Veterans Administration. It is also needed from civilian social workers. As noted in the "Preface" of the Handbook of Military Social Work (Rubin, Weiss, & Coll, in press),

   Indeed, the vast numbers of service members
   returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
   likely will exceed the capacity of the
   Department of Veteran Affairs and affiliated
   programs such as the Vet Centers to serve
   them all adequately. These clients will be
   seeking services within the civilian sector,
   such as in community mental health agencies,
   [health maintenance organizations] and private
   practices. … 

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