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Supporting Military Service Members and Veterans: A Look at Military Social Work With Dr. Chris Flaherty, UK Professor and Former US Air Force Major

When most people think of social work, they don’t associate it with the armed forces. Not many social work students know much about this branch of the field unless they have been personally impacted by military social work.

This is beginning to change as Dr. Chris Flaherty and his colleagues at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work are teaching and expanding research and outreach within their military behavioral health programming.

In this interview, Dr. Flaherty, who serves as both Director of the Military Behavioral Health Research Laboratory and an Associate Professor at the college, discusses the nature of military social work, the UK program, and his own 20-year career as a commissioned Air Force officer in the field.

What exactly is military social work? What’s the nature of the job?

The Role of Social Work in the Armed Forces

The US military healthcare system parallels its civilian counterpart: its installations have hospitals with physicians, nurses, and everything that you would find in civilian settings. The hospitals vary in size from major medical centers, like the one we work with in San Antonio, to smaller hospitals on more remote bases.

For decades, social work has played a major role in the military within the behavioral healthcare system. Professionals fill roles both as uniformed social work officers across the different branches and as civilians, a.k.a. civil service members, working on military installations and in the hospitals.

A typical behavioral health clinic or operation in the military will have a combination of social workers, psychologists, and maybe psychiatrists, depending on the size of the base or installation, as well as psychiatric nurses and mental health technicians.

Military social work is, by and large, clinical, especially among the commissioned officers. Military social workers are expected to pursue licensure at the advanced level, even though many may eventually end up in administration, away from direct clinical practice. And the military helps their folks earn that license through a number of ways.

The Various Areas of Military Social Work

People may think military social work must be generic, but it’s not; practitioners in the service have all of the same varied roles that social workers on the civilian health side have. Even though all of my practice experience was in the US Air Force, I’ve worked in adult mental health, child protection, and domestic violence programming. I worked in forensic social work in a military prison. I served in the education and healthcare fields, working with family medicine residents and teaching behavioral healthcare. So, even though it’s all military per se, there’s a lot of breadth to it.

And then, many social workers move up into administration, where they’re overseeing not just social work but larger behavioral healthcare operations. I’ve even known one case where a military social work officer was a commander of a field hospital. The profession has a major role in military healthcare, and I don’t think that’s going to change; if anything, it will continue to grow in the future, because the military healthcare system has been seeing the value in having social work officers, who have helped a great many service members and their families.

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I understand the UK College of Social Work’s military behavioral health lab has been active for about a year and a half. Would you tell us more about that and talk about how students have been engaging with the lab?

The lab is still in the nascent stage, where we have a lot of startup projects in the wings. I’m working with one of our Army faculty members on a textbook chapter about education of military social workers and the value of civilian and military partnerships; and we will offer to bring students in on that project, giving them a chance to learn more about military social work and contribute.

We’re working through some data-share arrangements with the military, including one with a major Army installation, which we’re very close to finalizing. There are quite a few bureaucratic hoops to go through, but we have various pieces in progress. In this arrangement, we will be analyzing the Army’s ongoing, large-scale behavioral health survey data that they collect on a quarterly basis. The UK CoSW will assist them in doing sophisticated analysis of these data to identify trends and factors that predict and impact positive or negative behavioral health outcomes for the troops, and how interventions may be tailored based on the data.

Throughout the process, we will be collaborating with the Army’s behavioral health officers and asking, “How can we improve this? How can we roll our findings into policy and practice to improve behavioral health and services for our troops?”

We’re working on another project to support student veteran success in transitioning from the military to college. This will provide an opportunity for some student participation as well. We’re still in the early stages as far as getting students connected, but we have a lot of things in the wings that are going to be very productive and interesting avenues for them.

I was interested to learn that you have the only program in the United States that specifically trains officers to become military social workers, under a contract with the US Army. Would you give us an overview of that program and how that’s been working out so far?

One of the gems in our military behavioral health programming is our contract with the Army, and it opens possibilities for a lot of other collaborations and partnerships along the way. I see it as the linchpin and the core of what we’re doing with military behavioral health. We secured it through a competitive bid process in which we were up against other major research universities, winning the contract in the fall of 2016.

Overview of the Army MSW Partnership

The partnership between the University of Kentucky College of Social Work and the US Department of Defense is run by the Army, but it is a program for military social work trainees from across the service branches. So, we have Navy and Air Force members as well, and we’ve had at least one Coast Guard person. We also have some folks who are going into government civil service to work with the military as civilians.

We at the UK CoSW provide our accredited curriculum to the Army, and they provide us with funding as well as additional faculty and staff at our site at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. They also work with us to tweak and modify our curriculum to make it more military-specific in certain areas, so that’s it even more relevant for their students. And these changes inform all of our military-related instruction and coursework, including classes and projects for our regular MSW students outside of the Army program — ensuring that all of our learners benefit by becoming better educated and prepared to help service members and their families.

That was the impetus for the military to seek such a contractual relationship with a university because it fulfilled one of their biggest needs: the ability to recruit and retain social work officers who understood military culture, were educated in and agreeable to practicing within that system, and had a deep knowledge of the unique challenges faced by service members. There is a lot of turnover in the military, and this was a way to solve that problem. It also allowed the Army to benefit from all the resources and clout of a nationally accredited civilian university, while being able to collaborate with our faculty on research to advance military social work.

This partnership is unique: UK doesn’t have anything quite like it, and there aren’t any other universities that have anything exactly like it. Our relationship is very interactive all the way through, especially since the military is using the same curriculum that we use, by and large.

The Details

The Army’s faculty are appointed through a regular appointment process to the University of Kentucky, even though most of them are uniformed social work officers with a few civil service civilians. They deliver our content to students with those aforementioned modifications to make it more militarily relevant.

They enroll a cohort every 14 months, approximately 25 new students each time; and because there’s some overlap, at any given time, there are approximately 50 students matriculating at our Army site in Fort Sam Houston. The military faculty can fast-track students, providing our two-year curriculum in just 14 months, because there’s no summer break — the military doesn’t work on a nine-month schedule.

There are also some modifications to how they arrange the field education part. They do it in concentrated blocks rather than incorporating it into other courses: their students do coursework and then discrete field placement, followed by more coursework and another placement. So, there are some changes structurally, but the content, learning objectives, and student outcomes are all the same for their learners as they are for ours, and their students have to pass the same comprehensive examination before graduation.

Progress

To date, we’ve matriculated about 100 social work officers through our program. The previous Army director, a colonel, told us that we at the UK College of Social Work are assessing, i.e., bringing into the military, 75% of the Army’s new social work officers.

This partnership has been a major undertaking that has required a lot of cooperation, trust, flexibility, and patience on both sides. And, inevitably, there were a lot of challenges in getting the two systems connected, including unforeseen struggles we came across, but we’ve worked a lot of that out over the last five years. And we just won renewal of the contract for another five years, so we’re very happy.

One of the major factors that helped us get selected and re-selected is that Dean Miller and our administration here are very supportive of this endeavor and patient with the challenges that come along with it. Thanks to their help and the work that we and the Army have put into this relationship, we will put the University of Kentucky stamp on military social work even more: over the next few years, maybe we’ll get that 75% up to 90%.

Is the UK College of Social Work program better for students who have completed military service? What are the avenues and options through the program for those who just want to be able to help the population of veterans, without serving in the armed forces themselves?

Military Advantage

People who have the military background, whether they did a tour or were in the reserves or something else, want to serve that veteran population, because they developed ties to and empathy for their comrades. Some are prior enlisted service members; others are officers working in other specialties who want to cross over into social work.

And they have an advantage, like I had when I went into my first post-master’s job, by virtue of knowing the general culture, at least, even if they don’t know all the different cultures and subcultures within the military. It’s not one monolithic society and philosophy: the Marines are very different from the Air Force, and even in the Air Force, fighter pilots are very different from social workers.

And those who have some military service, even if it’s a couple of years in the reserves, or come from a military family, learn a lot through the osmosis of being in this system: the jargon, chain of command, rank structures, rules of engagement, how what you say to a person of this rank is not what you say to someone of that rank.

Intro Course

We offer an introductory military social work course that’s a requirement for our certificate program, and I tell our vets, “The first few weeks of this class are going to be a little redundant for you, but we have to start there, because our students without previous military exposure may not know the difference between an NCO and a commissioned officer, or may not know that families relocate every three or four years. Understanding military life and experiences will help our students become exceptional social workers for our military.

Overall Benefit of Military Behavioral Health Education

For learners who have no armed forces background, our military-focused coursework is a great way to develop some competence in working with the veteran population — whether they want to go into the military or the VA themselves — because it can be a challenging group.

If you’re talking to a veteran, especially someone who’s seen a lot of direct conflict and combat, and you don’t understand any of the language and can’t comprehend any of the experiences the person has been through, it’s hard to develop a working relationship and build trust. But I tell students to show appreciation for their experience and take a humble approach.

I wouldn’t try to pass myself off as somebody who understands what an Army Ranger goes through. I served in an air-conditioned hospital for pretty much my whole time in the military; I don’t know what it’s like to go through Ranger training or live in tents out in the field for months at a time. Say, “I know I haven’t done what you’ve done, but I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about military life and culture; help me learn more, so I can better assist and serve you.”

And that may or may not work — an Army Ranger may never see me as a true veteran compared to them. And that’s fine; but it’s about understanding what they’ve been through and where they’re coming from, a lot of which can be learned through diligent study and having exposure to and conversations with veterans and active service members. We try to get our students to do that as much as possible.

So, there’s no military experience required for any of this.

Civil Service, Military, and VA Career Options

For MSW students who want to serve veterans, a big avenue is the VA system, which is very different from the DOD healthcare system. The VA is the largest employer of social workers in the world — there are 13,000 or 14,000 of them. Being a veteran gets you some hiring points to get into the VA, but it’s not required: we’ve had plenty of students come through our MSW program and get jobs in the local VA. Our online MSW students might become social workers who are operating on military installations, alongside the uniformed social workers, and they don’t have to move every few years or deploy to hostile environments.

Alternatively, students can apply directly to the military if they wish. At our program in Texas, we have admitted students directly out of civilian life who have no military experience at all until they show up. They go through a basic officer’s orientation course before they start their MSW coursework, and that’s six weeks or so of military education so that they understand the system and cultural factors.

Maintaining Relationships With Graduates

We place a lot of value on staying in contact with our graduates. One of the great things about our programs is that former students go back and provide us with connections for research partnerships down the line. One fellow who just graduated is going to San Antonio, and he’s already talking with us about how we can partner with one another and get a team together to expand research.

A military system is all about relationships. Our director of student veteran services on campus, a retired lieutenant colonel, always says that, if you want to do business with the DOD, they need to know they can trust you. You can’t just be a name with Ph.D. at the end of it; you can’t even just be a veteran. They need to know you’re going to work collaboratively with no hidden agenda. They want people who want to work with them on solutions.

And I am passionate about this work; I want to give something back, because the military gave me a lot. I see the troops and what they go through, especially our young folks, so I want to do anything I can to make their experience better and to help them adapt and succeed.

For more from Dr. Flaherty, check out his firsthand account of his experience as a social work officer in the US Air Force.

To learn more, explore the University of Kentucky’s Online MSW, Support for Military, or their Military Behavioral Health Lab. The UK College of Social Work offers great educational tracks for military and veteran social workers as well as civilians who want to help service members.

To get in touch with an admissions counselor about UK’s military social work programs, fill out this form or call 1-833-358-1721.

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