School Sponsors Military Social Work Conference

The School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin held a conference on military social work April 11-13, 2013.  The conference included tracks for social work practitioners and for social work educators.

For years, the School of Social Work has had numerous students in field placements in military and veterans facilities. Many have gone to work in military facilities. A recent video produced by DVIDS for the Department of the Army features a student from the UT Austin School of Social Work who is doing her field practicum at a military medical center in Germany.

Allen Rubin, professor in the School of Social Work, organized the conference. We talked to him about it.

Q. What’s the purpose of the conference?
With the wars winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the military personnel returning, there’s going to be a big need for services to deal with the social, behavioral, economic and psychological difficulties that they’ll be bringing back with them as well as helping them reintegrate into community life.


Dr. Allen Rubin, Bert Kruger Smith Centennial Professor in Social Work

The folks that I’ve talked to at the Veterans Administration expect that the number of returning service members in need is going to outstrip their capacity serve everybody as well as they would like within the system. The indications are pretty apparent that we’ll need more social workers who can work with these returning veterans in community settings.

 Q. Who is the conference for?
It’s for social work practitioners, to get them started on learning things that they need to know to be better prepared to serve the returning veterans and their families.

And it’s for social work faculty in schools of social work, to help them improve their curriculum and teaching approaches to better prepare students to provide those services.

Q. Why are there so many challenges that require the skills of social workers?
For veterans who are coming back with traumatic brain injuries, social workers are part of a team to help them adjust. And they work with families help them cope and facilitate treatments. Additionally, social workers can provide psychotherapy in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

With the current Global War on Terror, there are multiple deployments where active duty personnel as well as reservists and National Guard service members get deployed overseas to combat zones, come back for a little while, and get deployed again. This happens over and over again. It is not uncommon for service members to deploy as many as six times in their career. One can imagine how this can be taxing for all members of the family.

Additionally, during this time the service member can miss significant family milestones such as holidays and children’s birthdays. Social workers work with families to help them anticipate and cope with the challenges that this is going to pose for them and how they can try to cope with that as well as with the service member returning home and reintegrating back into the family and community.

Q. What roles do social workers play in serving active military, veterans and families?
It’s pretty extensive, pretty varied. Here’s a look at just a few of them.

They help veterans to adjust to civilian life. One example: When the veterans come back from deployment they may miss the sense of mission that they felt over there, and one way to help them deal with that is to help them find new missions here at home. For example, volunteering at some charity.

A lot of military personnel –females as well as males – are victims of sexual abuse. Social workers work in trying to prevent that as well as work with the victims to alleviate the pyscho-social effects.

Social workers help veterans find employment. They’re coming back to, at least up to this time, a pretty bad economy and social workers can try to help find employment.

Social workers help veterans negotiate the service delivery system and entitlements that they’re entitled to. The VA system is vast and complex, and vets might not be aware of all the services, entitlements and resources they can access. Social workers help them identify resources and negotiate the system to try to get what they need.

And their roles are not just providing direct clinical and case management services. They could also be involved in planning and influencing military policy with regard to these kinds of problems.

Q. Is there a key theme to the conference?
One important area is for social workers to learn about and understand the importance of the military culture. One of the things I learned is that it’s very difficult for a civilian mental health professional – psychologist or social worker – to be therapeutically effective with a military vet if they don’t understand the military culture. They need to understand that in order to have a good working relationship and therapeutic alliance with the client. That’s one of the big themes of the conference.

Q. Will military and families be a part of the conference?
Yes. We’ll have a panel presentation by spouses of veterans. We’ll have some opening remarks by veterans. The social work practitioners will get to hear and interact with some veterans and their families and spouses

Q. What will the conference have for social work practitioners?
There will be sessions on the areas of social work we talked about earlier, with a session on treating combat-related PTSD including using virtual reality.

There will be a session on what social workers need to know about traumatic brain injury and the implications for how to work with client and the family when traumatic brain injury is involved.

There will be a long session on Saturday on working with families and children –what are the stressors on military families and children, how to intervene with them, and so forth

Q. How about for educators?
For them, we’ll have sessions on model syllabi and teaching approaches that work well for teaching social work students about working with military service members and their families.

There will be sessions on how to provide good internships and field placements. And we’ll have sessions on working with and helping military vets who come back to college. Additional sessions will cover how best to teach their students about scientifically supported effective treatments for PTSD, such as exposure therapy.

Q. Do you have a background or experience in military social work?
If, years ago, someone asked how likely I would be to be the person to be doing this, I would have said extremely unlikely.

During the Vietnam era when so many of my peers sacrificed so much, I was very active in the movement to protest that war. I made some sacrifices in that regard but not nearly as much the sacrifice as my peers who were serving. When 9-11 occurred I felt very much the need for us to do something. This (working on military social work issues) has given me an opportunity in some small way to contribute to this effort.

Q. You started teaching a course of military social work. How have students responded?
There was great interest. We had to set a limit and then we went over it a bit. We ended up with 30 students in the elective course.

 Q. Why do you think there has been such interest?
One thing is that some of our students have experienced this. They are of the age where this is going on for them right now. In my class there were a handful of students who were veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan. There were students who were spouses or best friends of people who were or had been deployed.

Another reason, I think, is a sense of duty, a sense of wanting to help. Recognizing that what we’re experiencing with the Global War on Terror is unique. We haven’t experienced anything like this before.

We’re relying on an all-volunteer military force to do so much and where the general population at large is not being asked to sacrifice. There have been many multiple deployments. You’ve got this situation like never before where military personnel and their families are being asked to sacrifice so much, while everybody else is not being asked to sacrifice anything.

So I think a lot of social work students are sensitive to that, and they are motivated by that. They realize what’s going on and they’re motivated to want to do their part to help.