How do you help a 27-year-old reservist -- a carpenter in civilian life -- find a new career when he's lost an arm in Iraq? What services can help the World War II vet whose retirement check doesn't stretch far enough?
It takes a vast array of knowledge and skills to answer such questions. The social workers who serve the nation's 23.2 million veterans provide this help every day.
Spotlighting the VA
For social workers seeking to work with veterans, the obvious starting point is the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA is the country's largest employer of those who hold master's degrees in social work (MSWs), says Jill Manske, MSW, director of social work service in the VA's central office in Washington, DC.
Veterans' mental health issues -- such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) -- are a major focus of the 4,000 social workers under Manske's direction. But VA social workers also help vets navigate government bureaucracies like Medicare and Medicaid and provide referrals to legal, financial, housing and vocational resources.
Veterans' expectations often depend on their age, says Manske. "Today, they want a prosthetic leg that lets them play basketball," she says. Inevitably, though, when servicemen become disabled, their first question is how soon they can get back to their unit. After a doctor has explained why they cannot return to active duty, the social worker picks up the pieces. That means helping servicemen cope with their anger and feelings that they've abandoned their comrades, and then helping them find different vocational opportunities, Manske explains.
Older veterans treated by the VA tend to have more complex medical problems. Many have no health insurance, so the VA is their only resource. Social workers can move into clinical areas, like oncology, where Manske says they "might help [veterans] find equipment they need and locate support groups for them."
VA employment offers excellent benefits, including competitive pay and opportunities for promotions and transfers nationwide. VA listings for social workers have included openings for:
- A licensed clinical social worker at the VA Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Salary range: $54,494 to $70,843.
- An admissions coordinator for the Women’s Trauma Recovery Program at the VA Medical Center in Menlo Park, California. Salary range: $63,811 to $99,431.
- A social worker for the Health Care for Homeless Vets program at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System in Michigan. Salary range: $58,996 to $76,695.
A personal connection, such as having a relative who is a veteran, attracts some students, says Anne Kok, MSW, PhD, chair of the Social Work Professional Program at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. Others become interested as they "think about...a population they really want to help," she says.
The VA is affiliated with more than 100 graduate schools of social work, so those who aspire to work with veterans should go through their school to arrange clinical training at a local VA hospital. Even without that in-house experience, Manske notes that "in their grad work, social workers get exposed to a variety of training." Other than those who have focused entirely on child services, she says, "it would be unusual to find someone who doesn't have the knowledge to work in the VA."
Beyond the VA
Outside the VA, a number of opportunities exist for social workers to serve veterans.
Veterans may be more prevalent in rural locations, for instance. In addition, primary agencies -- such as the ones listed under "Social & Human Services" or "Mental Health Clinics" in the phone book -- deal with their share of dishonorably discharged vets, who do not fall under the purview of the VA. In primary agencies, services for veterans may be "folded into broader areas like a drug and alcohol program," Kok says.
Call to Action
Advocacy is another part of working with veterans. "The complete social worker would work with [a newly disabled serviceman] on the immediate problems of depression and retraining him for another job," Kok says. On a broader level, the social worker would then focus on ways to create jobs in the veteran's community, even lobbying for legislation to fund job-creation, job-training and job-retraining programs.