Social Workers Help Military Families
by Tori DeAngelis
Military families who remain at home don't command the same
attention as their deployed loved ones, who are shown on TV
in the thick of battle, fighting Iraqi troops or storming one
of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces.The strength and cohesiveness
of soldiers' families, however, are vital to troops’ success
in the field--a secret social workers have known for a long
time, and that fuels their work during wartime.
As the second Gulf War continues, social workers in all branches of the
military are helping families and military personnel prepare for, and cope
with, the ravages of war. They do so through a range of preventive and
clinical services and programs, including family-support programs and mental-health
counseling. When soldiers return home, social workers in the Department
of Veterans Affairs are prepared to help them — and their families — reconnect
with society and with each other, and to get psychological help if needed.
"More than any other clinicians who work for the VA, social workers are
the ones who most often work with families," says Jill Manske, ACSW, LISW,
director of social work services in the Veterans' Affairs headquarters in Washington,
D.C. "We're the liaisons between the families and the VA, between the families
and communities--we're the resource people," she adds. "It's really
important for us to be as knowledgeable as we can, because if we don't know what's
out there, we can't help them."
Indeed, at VA hospitals and in military installations across the country,
Manske and thousands of other social workers are doing just that: gathering
important resources and implementing programs so military personnel can
return to a healthy civilian life and to families who have remained strong
during their absence.
Aiding military personnel
Military bases are up and running with a range of social work
programs, some of which are geared specifically to war, to
help military families according to Lt. Col. Dexter R. Freeman,
DSW, LCSW-C, ACSW, chief of the Department of Social Work at
Fort Hood, Texas, one of the nation’s largest military
On the prevention end, these programs include family and parent support
groups and centers. On the treatment end, clinical services include marriage
and family counseling and therapy for people prone to domestic violence,
child abuse, and neglect. During wartime, preventative and treatment services
expand to accommodate the increasing levels of stress associated with war,
Freeman says. Rapid deployment, like that taking place during the current
war, is one such stressor.
" People who are in the process of deploying, who also have unresolved family
issues,” he notes, “are more vulnerable to abusive incidents, especially
if they are not ready for that change.”
In addition to providing counseling
to deploying soldiers who may need it, military social workers also use a tried-and-true
social work strategy
for those remaining at home: connecting them with support systems,
Freeman says. "Isolation is what kills families," he explains, "so
we try to ensure that families have access to services that help them
understand they are not alone." Many military installations, for
example, have family-readiness programs designed to help family members
access the military’s extensive support systems. The programs,
Freeman says, team up older military families with younger ones to provide
younger families with emotional support, as well as with financial and
Since the start of the war, military bases also have activated
family-assistance centers, staffed with specialists including
social workers, chaplains, and child-development specialists,
Freeman continues. These helpers can address the specialized
needs of military families, from child care and child behavior
issues to financial matters.
In the field, social workers play
a different role, helping soldiers and commanders maintain
the morale necessary to keep
units at full fighting
strength, Freeman notes. Here too, families are an important part of the
picture. "Social workers help the troops focus on their mission without
being overwhelmed with family-related problems," he says.
Social workers accomplish this in two ways. In a preventive capacity,
they assess the troops’ mood and recommend ways of improving morale
to commanders. In a clinical capacity, along with other mental health
social workers treat soldiers when mental-health problems arise during
the stress of battle. Common problems that crop up, he notes, include substance
abuse, depression, and anxiety.
A different kind of war
In addition to traditional social work strategies and programs
used during wartime, military social workers are gearing up
to address some new realities that are part of the current
war and international climate.
One is the threat of biological and chemical weapons, both in the field
and on the home front. To deal with this potentiality, the Department of
Defense and the VA have Web pages devoted to bioterrorism, and social workers
are boning up on them, says Manske. VA social workers are also drawing
on elements of a national VA disaster response plan created after September
11, 2001, to develop a similar plan addressing what to do in the event
of domestic terrorism, she says.
"We want to have programs in place," Manske notes, "so that if
there is a disaster or a need to provide emergency services, social workers are
familiar with the available resources, and can make things happen on very short
Unlike previous wars, Gulf War II involves many young troops — including
young women — many who have young children, Manske notes. "We'll
be dealing with a lot of young women coming back from war, some of whom
are injured," Manske says. "They are going to be very different
from the patient populations we've treated before. We are starting to gear
up to make sure we have all the services in place that these women will
How VA social workers are helping
During the first Gulf War, Manske notes, VA social workers
received federal authority to work with military families before
military personnel returned. While that may happen again, so
far it hasn't, she says. VA social workers are therefore doing
what they can, undertaking activities that will ensure they're
ready once the troops return home, she says, and helping families
in specific ways before then. One key role social workers play
is connecting military families with vital community resources
like childcare, transportation, and finances, Manske adds.
This is especially important for families of reservists, who
may not be well-connected with DoD services.
VA social workers also are touching base with DoD social workers, "to
let them know we're available and ready to help," Manske says. In
fact, the VA and DoD have common projects under way, including a joint
training conference on disaster response to be held next year, and a VA-created
satellite broadcast that has trained both VA and DoD social workers on
the psychological impact of war.
VA social workers also are holding in-service meetings for VA staff who
do not work in mental health, to help them recognize symptoms of post-traumatic
stress in patients and themselves, says Judith Talbert, ACSW, LISW, care
line manager for mental health at the Chalmers P. Wylie VA Outpatient Clinic,
in Columbus, Ohio. This skill will become increasingly important, she adds,
as returning veterans start flooding VA hospitals.
"We're doing this,” she explains, “so the screening process
is better and more accurate
once soldiers return.”
VA social workers are also partnering with the Fisher House Foundation
to spread the word about a valuable link on the organization’s Web
site among VA social workers. At www.fisherhouse.org,
a link titled "Support our troops" gives "all kinds of ideas
on helping military and veteran families," including sending e-mail
messages to wounded soldiers in military hospitals, Manske says. Fisher
House Foundation, which recently lost a trustee, Anthony Fisher, to a plane
crash, builds and donates Fisher Houses to the DoD and VA to lodge family
members of hospitalized active duty personnel and veterans.
Military and VA social workers have a long history of dealing with military
personnel and war veterans, and are also getting up to speed on some new
realities, notes Sandra Brake, MSW, ACSW, social work program manager at
VA headquarters in Washington.
" This is a terribly stressful time for these families, particularly in
a conflict like this when many Reservists are called up," she says. "In
every area, social workers are gearing up to serve the men and women who will
Tori DeAngelis is a freelance writer who has written for Psychology
Common Boundary, the APA Monitor and other publications. She
lives in Syracuse, N.Y.