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 installations.

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 practical resources.

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 personnel, 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 notice."

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 need."

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, 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 be returning."

Tori DeAngelis is a freelance writer who has written for Psychology Today,
Common Boundary, the APA Monitor and other publications. She lives in Syracuse, N.Y.