Military Social Work: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and National Guard: 2023 Guide to Career Paths

Military social work (MSW) is a growing field of social work that specifically caters to the United States military and all its branches. It also covers organizations in the federal government that are related to military institutions and military intelligence. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs the 2021 median annual pay for all social workers at $50,390, with a job outlook forecast growth rate of 9% (2021-31 projections) (BLS, 2022).

These figures, however, are general estimates, and the need for military social work and military social workers may be much more than these estimates indicate. Our research team at used the latest data and figures to come up with the most recent figures and statistics on the state of the military social work profession in the U.S.

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  1. What is a military social worker?
  2. Military Social Workers: Types
  3. What Military Social Workers Do
  4. What challenges do military social workers face?
  5. Why pursue a career in military social work?
  6. Requirements to Become a Military Social Worker
  7. Careers and Salaries of Military Social Workers
  8. Challenges and the Future of Military Social Work

What is a military social worker?

A military social worker (MSW) in the U.S. is a type of social worker with varying degrees of expertise. One is mostly employed directly or indirectly by the U.S. Military Veteran Affairs or related organizations. They all possess Master’s degrees in Social Work; all are licensed social workers (LSWs), and many are licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs). At the same time, some may also be classified as reservists or enlisted personnel depending on location, branch, and deployment situation.

They are an important part of the workforce that caters to the non-military aspects of running a military, especially in the emotional and psychological care of veterans, facilitation of medical care and treatment options, acting as channels of communication for veterans at high suicide risk, resource persons for patient or institution referrals, family consultation, and many other informal roles that help veterans in maintaining healthy and happy personal and family lives.

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Military Social Workers: Types

According to function and specialties, the following lists the types of military social work that MSWs do.

Embedded and Active-Duty Military Social Workers

Military social workers can be active-duty soldiers embedded with combat personnel and act as care providers in highly stressful situations. These include combat and post-combat situations where they can alleviate stress and PTSD among soldiers. These are high-risk military social work situations and require mental toughness and great people skills.

In a study titled “A Scoping Review of Contemporary Social Work Practice With Veterans” in the peer-reviewed journal Research on Social Work Practice, Bloeser and Bausman stated that “a total of 536 items were reviewed,” with the majority of peer-reviewed empirical literature coming from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. They also found that “a slight majority, 58% of peer-reviewed articles, identified a social worker as an author. The most frequently used keywords in social work journals reflected mental health (33%), most focused on post-traumatic stress disorder (41%).” (Bloeser and Bausman, 2020). These indicate the importance of MSWs as active researchers in MSW-related cases.

Civilian Military Social Workers

Civilian military social workers do not hold rank in the military or armed forces. They are employed as civilians by the federal government or other organizations to provide their services to military personnel. They may be involved with military social work clients directly or maybe more involved in the policy-making side of things.

Veteran Social Workers

Veteran Social Workers specifically deal with Veterans and their needs in military and post-military life. They take care of their current needs, including those of their family, and they also help them reintegrate into civilian life and society after their military service.

Other Special Social Workers

In terms of special workers, we can classify them more using their specific roles or specialized functions that soldiers might be looking for, including various types of Army counseling.

Military family counselors or involve not just the individual but also his/her family, taking care of the needs of both and helping them out in very stressful marriage situations. Some counselors also get a special child welfare license to work more efficiently with families.

Some social workers are part of military-to-civilian transition support groups that help veterans get civilian jobs or independent contractor jobs. Other types of jobs include military social work for veterans, which help them stay motivated and productive. They might even end up researching how to become a guidance counselor or how to become a mental health counselor.

They also monitor veterans and provide mental health counseling for psychological problems or mental health issues, particularly PTSD and suicide prevention, and various types of counseling Army personnel can avail. The most extreme activity they can do is crisis intervention which may require both psychological and physical interventions, for example in preventing suicide or suicidal ideation among their patients.

In cases where substance abuse counseling is necessary, specialist clinical MSWs are called in to help and set up short-term and long-term plans for patients to prevent substance abuse, thereby also preventing serious problems from arising.

What Military Social Workers Do

In a nutshell, military social workers provide care to individual military personnel and their families. They may deal with clients directly or maybe be more involved with organization-wide policy-making and social work implementation and not have individual clients.

In active war or conflict zones, MSWs are indispensable in providing counseling and a listening ear to combatants. Soldiers need someone to talk to reduce the everyday pressures of stress in combat and to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD and harmful behaviors.

MSWs often talk to and diagnose veterans constantly in order to quickly identify problems and treatment or intervention methods. This not only takes physical intervention but also emotional and psychological intervention. One needs to be able to quickly de-escalate situations, prevent veterans from committing self-harm and harm to others, help them deal with substance abuse problems, prevent firearms trouble, and prevent suicide attempts. These and other associated diagnosed conditions of Veterans were serious causes of suicide in 2020.

Source: Veteran Affairs, 2022

They are also active in crisis intervention, which arises from problems due to the various pressures of military life.

As part of their case and patient work, organizing paperwork and client records while maintaining factual accuracy and observing client privacy at all times are essential skills of MSWs in military social work.

MSWs should always be in constant communication with other members of the military, especially the chain of command, when a patient shows symptoms of PTSD, or even when the patient is relatively normal. They should also inform their mentors and superiors of any developments in patient behavior and treatment.

And after duty or upon dismissal from the service, veterans find it quite difficult to transition back into society. This is a crucial point of help provided by MSWs. Helping service members with their health and entering employment post-military life is a very important part of success in civilian life.

There are many programs that the military, civic organizations, non-profits, religious organizations, and other groups have set up to help people in all sorts of situations. MSWs arrange services and connect veterans with these programs to ensure they get the benefits they seek.

MSWs are known to provide family services to veterans and their families and connect them with family-related programs in the community, including the families of fellow servicemen.

What challenges do military social workers face?

War and conflict can produce deep psychological wounds and trauma that are not easily unpacked and may take years to unveil and talk about. These produce the greatest challenge to MSWs as they perform their military social work duties. The following are some of the many challenges MSWs experience.

PTSD in the military, USA
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is defined as a state of persistent mental and emotional duress caused by physical or emotional injury or severe psychological shock. It is a serious and common disorder among U.S. adults. According to statistics, PTSD is slightly more common among Veterans than civilians, and at some point in their life, seven out of every 100 Veterans (or 7%) will have PTSD. In the general population, six of every 100 adults (6%) will experience PTSD in their lifetime. Additionally, PTSD is more common among female Veterans at 13% compared to their male counterparts at 6% (Veterans Affairs, 2023).

PTSD symptoms can be quite complex and are often combinations of repeated and intrusive thoughts and involuntary memories, distressing dreams, and traumatic event flashbacks. PSTD sufferers avoid people, places, activities, and situations that may evoke reminders of the trauma. In addition, memory problems and negative thoughts and feelings may lead to insecurity, self-blame, and a deep distrust toward others. Worse, extreme cases can lead to reactive symptoms like irritability, outbursts of anger, self-harm or self-destructive behavior, destructive behavior toward others, and several more.

It can also be noted that PTSD rates have increased a lot since WW2 and the Vietnam War to the present much greater levels. Some possible factors contributing to this increase are traumatic brain injury, the increased use of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on the battlefield, non-traditional warfare tactics, urban warfare, sexual harassment and trauma, and the loss of a sense of purpose and meaning. The latter is especially true after much of the U.S. public stopped fully supporting foreign U.S. wars some years after 9/11.

Source: Veteran Affairs, 2023


2021 statistics showed 30,177 active duty personnel and veterans dying by suicide. These served in the military after 9/11, a much higher number than the 7,057 service members killed in combat in the same 20 years.

There really is no easy answer to the whys of this deep problem, and an MSW’s most difficult situation is usually with veterans with suicidal ideation. One can use clinical skills to diagnose and set up preventative measures, but there are often very few clear symptoms before the act itself. It is an ongoing area of research, with some organizations resorting to predictive analytics using personal devices.

Military sexual trauma (MST)

MST encompasses any sexual activity during military service in which a Veteran was physically coerced, most commonly with threats of negative consequences for refusal to be sexually cooperative. It could also include improved treatment in exchange for sex. Around one in three women and one in 50 men affirmed that they experienced MST to their VA provider, with over one in every three Veterans being men. The numbers might be higher as many do not use VA health care.

The victim’s location (on or off base), duty status (on or off duty), and the perpetrator’s identity or characteristics are considered irrelevant to the fact that MST occurred.

military sexual trauma in the U.S. military

MST can come about due to intoxication or being in a state of unconsciousness such that the subject was incapable of informed consent to sexual activity. Other experiences that qualify as MST include the following: sexual touching without consent (even during “hazing” rituals) and verbal comments about a person’s body or sexual activities.

Obviously, this is a very difficult challenge for MSWs as they have to deal with the chain of command. If the perpetrator was a commanding officer, things could become very complicated and difficult.

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Why pursue a career in military social work?

Aside from good pay and a stable need for MSWs in the military, the intangible benefits of helping someone adjust to society are innumerable. It is very difficult for military personnel to talk about or even remember traumatic events, and if trauma involves a commanding officer, reporting via the chain of command oftentimes discourages victims from talking about their experiences.

It is all about saving someone’s life. MSWs do this by helping prevent suicide, domestic partner violence, child abuse, substance abuse, and many other harmful behaviors. One bad event is always too much, and MSWs are crucial parts of the help support system that soldiers and veterans sorely need.

Perhaps the greatest help one can give is helping sexual abuse victims in the military system. Therapy helps victims realize and understand that it was not their fault, the first step to mental and emotional healing. While prevention of sexual abuse is ideal, it is necessary to have steps in place for safe spaces for veterans to talk about MSTs. MSWs are the first-line people that they can talk to.

Source: Defense Suicide Prevention Office, 2020

As shown in the above chart, the general trend was an increase in the number of suicides from 2019 to 2020 across all branches of the active and reserve forces, indicating a serious need for MSWs to help in this area, including Air Force social worker responsibilities.

Helping someone with PTSD avoid self-destructive behaviors and helping him/her transition back to civilian life is also one of the important tasks of an MSW. One life pointed in the right direction is one life pointed away from a destructive path.

Requirements to Become a Military Social Worker

What degrees do the military look for? You must have a social work degree at the bare minimum. For that, you are not limited to a traditional setup.

In particular, online colleges for social worker degrees are quite plentiful.

But if you prefer the traditional route, you can take a relevant, regular bachelor of social work degree instead.

All MSWs are licensed social workers, and to become one, you must get a Bachelor’s in Social Work (BSW) at the bare minimum. Next, you should get a Masters’s degree in Social Work (MSW) and get licensed in your state in order to become a licensed MSW. Further specialization can also be pursued, and many MSWs are also licensed clinical social workers. There are also several Air Force clinical social worker internship program plans you can look into. You can also get the MSW degree online that matters if you so wish.

In order to get licensed, one must take the official licensure exam comprised of four sections, and one must pass each one in order to pass the test. The exams are purposely difficult in order to maintain the high standards of social work expected from professionals involved with military personnel and their families.

Bear in mind that licenses expire every two to three years, so make sure you keep up to date with requirements. Most states require continuing education credits and other specific requirements like completing sexual harassment handling training, which can be applied online.

You can also practice in more than one state through state reciprocity laws. However, nowadays, deployment locations in the military are mostly mission-dependent, and you will find yourself not in any specific state but mostly deployed abroad. You just need to maintain your main license and keep current with state requirements.

Other licensure types

There are other licenses that one can obtain on top of state licensure that may increase the likelihood of working for the military or in a certain specialized field in the military. If you are looking for entry-level social worker options with military specializations, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) certification is the first credential for BSWs, which requires at least two years of military-related work experience.

The next level is an MSW degree, which makes one eligible for general certification with the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW). The certificate is known as the Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Social Worker (MVF-SW). One must be a member of good standing of the National Association of Social Workers. In addition, one must have two years of employment and work experience under a credentialed supervisor. There are also 20 or more hours of continuing education one must accomplish.

A related certification is the Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Advanced Social Worker (MVF-ASW). Licensed MSWs must also have had two years working professionally with veterans and military personnel and/or their families. The 20 hours of continuing education requirement is different in that of the 20 hours, at least 10 hours must be spent on military-related specializations.

And lastly, the most advanced among these is the Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Clinical Social Worker (MVF-CSW) certification. This certification allows you to perform diagnosis and treatment of psychosocial disorders in veterans utilizing advanced clinical, behavioral, and mental health expertise and techniques. A master’s degree is required, including three years of professional experience. The CE training hours requirement is the most at 30 or more hours.

Again, all these are not substitutes for state licensing but rather supplemental ones.

Technical and Personal Skills

The following is a list of essential skills an MSW should have.

  • Analytical skills

Critical thinking and analysis are important in order to analyze data impartially and accurately. Unbiased and factual thinking helps MSWs make informed decisions accurately and identify the best resources for assisting clients.

  • Communication

Verbal and nonverbal communication skills allow MSWs to effectively read clients and determine appropriate treatments or interventions. Body language and non-verbal cues give important clues that one can act on. Clear verbal and written communication ensures accuracy and clarity of information with care providers, organizations, agencies, other social workers, and the military chain of command.

  • Organizational skills

Documentation, reporting, billing, data gathering, collaboration, time management, and careful handling of classified information are essential organizational skills.

  • Empathy

Empathy is the capacity to identify with and comprehend the experience and perspective of another individual or being able to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. This helps build rapport and a degree of closeness between social workers and their clients. Success in empathizing often spells the difference between improvement and failure, and even the life and death of at-risk individuals.

  • Active listening skills

Social workers must have active listening skills in order to identify and discern a client’s needs. Listening attentively and asking the right follow-up questions help clarify spoken and unspoken information and increases rapport and trust.

  • Self-care

MSWs should be able to have a healthy work-life balance as MSW is physically demanding and emotionally exhausting. Self-care helps reduce tension and stress and helps one’s health and well-being. This mitigates physical exhaustion and compassion fatigue to provide better services to military clients.

  • Cultural sensitivity skills

Social workers must have cultural sensitivity and be respectful of others’ cultural and religious beliefs and practices to work with a diverse military population. They must also be knowledgeable and able to deliver services to people with diverse cultural backgrounds.

  • Professional commitment and dedication

MSWs must follow through with special clients in their transition back to society. Sticking with and constantly encouraging one’s clients are highly favorable to their personal and civilian life success. Dedication to them is often the reason why they improve and overcome PTSD and other harmful mental health problems.

Careers and Salaries of Military Social Workers

Military and veterans social workers assist veterans in various areas, including family relationships, educational opportunities, housing and employment, health concerns such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, and their unique experiences as women or sexual and racial minorities in the U.S. Armed Forces.

For the job occupation of social work, The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated a 2021 median annual pay of $50,390, with the total number of jobs at 708,100. The social worker career outlook for 2021-31 is a 9% growth rate, faster than the average rate of all jobs, and an employment change from 2021-31 of 64,000 employees (BLS, 2022). Other stats indicate that for all other social workers, the 2020 average salary was $49,781, the average male salary was $50,844, and the average female salary was $49,553 (Data USA, 2022).

military social workers salary

These may be lower estimates as they are industry figures. For military social work jobs, the U.S. military continues to expand its roles worldwide with increased deployments in new conflict areas, and the requirement for more social workers will only continue to increase.

The following are some military social worker salary values from different institutions and branches of the U.S. government. Actual salary values may differ depending on several factors (your mileage may vary).

  • Median Annual Salary:
    • Social Worker, Bureau of Prisons/Federal Prison System $78,667.45
    • Social worker, Department of State $127,312.58
    • Social worker, National Institutes of Health $107,881.47
    • Social worker, Substance Abuse & Mental Health Service Administration $52,175.00
    • Social Worker, the federal government $83,608.55
    • Social Worker, Veterans Health Administration $83,502.97
    • Social Worker, Department of Veteran’s Affairs $71,666
  • Outlook: +12% overall growth
  • Education Requirements: BSW, MSW
  • Licensure Requirements: LCSW

Some senior-level positions are often not advertised and may deal with sensitive or classified information, such as forensics research on suicides, military strategy, and/or military intelligence. These usually follow federal or military pay grades and require the highest levels of clearance.

Challenges and the Future of Military Social Work

As a direct consequence of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), there has been an increasing number of suicides among veterans. Although the Veteran Affairs’ budget has grown by $253 billion since 2001, more than 114,000 veterans have committed suicide since then, and veterans who experience high levels of difficulty when transitioning number around 40% and are 5x more likely to undergo suicidal ideation (, 2023).

Artificial intelligence and digital forensics might greatly help in learning about unknown factors that increase suicide risk and are now being harnessed by several agencies. These answer the question, “What can I do with a forensic psychology degree?” Becoming a military social worker and doing military social work are the most challenging yet most fulfilling jobs one can have. At the end of the day, saving a soldier’s life, improving his/her family life, and helping them return to civilian life after military discharge are the most important services we can give back to those who have served the nation.

If you want to further your degree research, you can check state-specific programs like social worker education requirements in California or online MSW programs in Texas.



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