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Is Becoming an Army Social Worker Right for You?

Is Becoming an Army Social Worker Right for You?
To become an Army social worker, you will need to enlist by the age of 42 (although you can request an age waiver if you're joining the reserves). Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry October 3, 2019

You don't need to carry a rifle to serve your country. As an Army social worker, you'll provide soldiers the compassion and guidance they need to navigate the unique challenges they face, both during and after service.

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Not all Army personnel are infantry (just as not everyone at Microsoft is a software engineer). Like any vast enterprise, the United States military employs all kinds of professionals, from financial managers to dietitians to entomologists.

Those professionals include social workers. As an Army social worker, you become an officer in the Army Medical Service Corps, and you work with people whose concerns and needs can be very different than those of the general population. You also have access to some of the most up-to-date healthcare and health services treatment and technology. Your duties may include research, teaching, and assisting with policy development (in addition to client services).

If you’d like to get into social work but aren’t sure where to start, consider a career in the armed forces. When you become an Army social worker, you may qualify for student loan repayment under the Health Professionals Loan Repayment Program—and you may receive a big enlistment bonus. You might even learn to shoot a rifle.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Where you’ll find Army social workers
  • How Army social work differs from civilian social work
  • The education required to become an Army social worker
  • How much Army social workers earn
  • Is this the right career for you?

Where you’ll find Army social workers

The Army first commissioned social workers in July of 1945. Today, every branch of service employs active duty and civilian-military social workers, deploying them anywhere soldiers are stationed and veterans are served. Many of these social workers are employed by the Army. Many others serve with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Others work for the Navy, Air Force, or Marines.

Army social workers work in the following situations:

  • Military bases
  • Community service organizations
  • Medical facilities like military hospitals
  • Military support centers
  • VA health centers and other veterans’ services organizations

Regardless of where they work, their job is the same: to help active and off-duty service members and military families lead healthier personal lives, to help soldiers recover from traumatic experiences, and to support those transitioning to civilian life.

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There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

University and Program Name Learn More

How Army social work differs from civilian social work

Military members face many of the same challenges as civilians, but also other issues stemming from Army culture and their unique experiences as soldiers. As a result, military social work is a specialized field of practice. Army social workers work with military personnel, veterans, spouses, and dependents. They need to be prepared not only to help their clients through personal and financial difficulties, but also to counsel them through the stress of deployment, conduct critical event debriefings, and care for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Army social workers need to have a deep understanding of:

  • The way military culture impacts individuals
  • The various resources available to service members and their dependents (e.g., employment services, education benefits, social services, and medical insurance)
  • The physical and mental issues common to military personnel and veterans, and how to treat them
  • The types of trauma soldiers face and how to implement crisis interventions when needed
  • The ways military culture impacts spouses and other family members
  • The military and civilian support available to aging veterans
  • The military and civilian support available to soldiers making the transition to civilian life

Army social workers’ duties may include:

  • Clinical counseling for individuals and families
  • Resource navigation
  • PTSD counseling
  • Trauma counseling
  • Crisis intervention
  • Disaster relief
  • Mental health therapy
  • Policy development
  • Development of mental health initiatives
  • Support and advocacy for aging veterans
  • Helping personnel transition into civilian life
  • Helping spouses and children deal with deployments
  • Researching issues specific to military members

Some Army social workers specialize further and work in family advocacy, alcohol- and substance-abuse treatment, medical social work, pediatric social work, domestic violence social work, and other niche areas. You may receive this training in a master’s degree program or in Advanced Individual Training (AIT) given through the Army’s Medical Service Corps. Advance opportunities typically involve oversight of departments in the role of director or chief.

The education required to become an Army social worker

To become an Army social worker, you will need your Master of Social Work (MSW) from a program that is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The Army will only commission you if you’re a fully licensed social worker with a graduate degree.

First, though, you need to earn your bachelor’s degree. Many social workers choose a bachelor’s degree major relevant to the job (such as counseling, sociology, psychology, or social work). If you choose to pursue a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree, you’ll likely need to complete a supervised clinical social work internship to graduate. It’s worth looking into internships on military bases or in an armed forces clinic because that will give you a better idea of what becoming an Army social worker is all about.

After you complete your BSW (or another appropriate undergraduate degree), your next step will be to enroll in a master’s degree program. Army social workers come from different kinds of MSW programs and choose all kinds of concentrations, but note that some schools offer specialized military-focused Master of Social Work programs.

__The following universities have MSW programs with military social work concentrations (or similar):__

Choosing one of these programs or a military-focused program at another school is the best way to prepare for a career working with service members, their families, and veterans. Accredited MSW programs with concentrations or sub-concentrations in military social work cover core topics like:

  • Human behavior
  • Social work practices
  • Family social work
  • Research methods
  • Mental health
  • Substance abuse

They also take classes like:

  • Clinical Practice with Military Families
  • Clinical Practice with Service Members and Veterans
  • Military Veteran Policy and Program Management
  • Marital Issues Within the Military Family
  • Military Culture and the Workplace Environment

By choosing a specialized military-focused program, you may increase your opportunities to complete your field placement with a military population. That’s a huge plus. However, even if you don’t earn your MSW in a program that offers a military concentration, your program’s field coordinator may be able to find placements in military-affiliated support centers, retirement communities, substance abuse clinics, or health centers. You may still be able to work with military personnel and veterans.

If you’re already serving in the armed forces, Fayetteville State University offers master’s degrees in social work to active duty soldiers as part of a partnership with the Army. Note that FSU also has a military behavioral health graduate certificate program.

As an Army social worker, you’ll not only need to pass the Association of Social Work Board’s (ASWB) exams to become a Licensed Master of Social Work (often abbreviated as LMSW, LGSW, or LSW), but you will also earn additional credentials.

__The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers three additional certifications for military social workers:__

The MVF-CSW and MVF-ASW designations are available only to those who have completed the MSW degree and three years of professional military-focused social work. To maintain these certifications, you will need to fulfill a continuing education requirement. Luckily, the Army offers its social workers plenty of professional growth opportunities, including courses, conferences, and seminars, along with free access to doctoral programs.

How much Army social workers earn

Army social workers are commissioned officers in the service’s Medical Service Corps, which means that pay is based on rank. According to Glassdoor, the typical Army social worker’s salary is $53,975, though an Army social worker who is a captain might earn more. A lieutenant colonel will make a lot more. Money isn’t the benefit of becoming an Army social worker, however.

Military social workers enjoy benefits like:

  • Loan repayment programs
  • Non-contributory retirement benefits
  • No-cost or low-cost medical and dental care (including for families)
  • Low-cost life insurance
  • Commissary shopping privileges
  • Specialized investment plans
  • Money for continuing education
  • No-cost specialized training

Is becoming an Army social worker right for you?

To become an Army social worker, you will need to enlist by the age of 42 (although you can request an age waiver if you’re joining the reserves). You must also be a US citizen. You also need to know that Army life typically requires frequent relocation. As a member of the Army Medical Service Corps, you’ll be assigned wherever the Army needs you, doing whatever the Army needs you to do. You might work in a military hospital in Florida, a substance abuse treatment program in Illinois, or a family counseling practice in Bangkok.

In short, you won’t have as much control over your career as you would if you become a social worker in private practice setting. If you’re unsure you can handle the regimen, reach out to some Army social workers to ask if you can shadow them for a while. Also, make an appointment to talk to a medical recruiter about the various benefits and commitments of enlisting as a social worker.

If you’re thinking about becoming an Army social worker to capitalize on the loan repayment benefits, residency programs, and medical insurance, fine, but remember that there are downsides to this career choice. You could be deployed overseas to a place you wouldn’t choose to visit on your own. You may be sent on extended training missions that last for weeks or even months. You will be required to participate in combat-specific training like marksmanship. At best, military life is rough on families.

If none of that dissuades you, here’s some good news. In 2010 the CSWE wrote: “There is an urgent need to understand and engage with the military service members, veterans, their families, and their communities in effective social work practices.” That hasn’t changed. Military life will always be stressful and there will always be war, which means you can be sure you’re making a real difference in the lives of the people who protect our country when you choose this career.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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