Professor Kari Fletcher teaches during a School of Social Work class in the Summit avenue Classroom Building on Friday, December 3, 2010.

Finding Meaning in Military Social Work

I still recall the moment I knew I wanted to work with veterans. It was my first day as an intern at the Philadelphia Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). I was walking across a busy intersection to my position as a volunteer at Stand Down, an annual event that provides support to homeless and at-risk veterans. The large grin plastered across my face must have seemed strange to the driver of a passing car who shouted, “What the @#? are you smiling at?” Left alone with my thoughts, I recall not knowing exactly why I felt so happy yet sensed I was about to embark on work that felt meaningful.

Fifteen years later, my work still feels meaningful as my identification with military social work continues to evolve. After I completed my VA internship (1998-1999) and graduated with my Master’s of Social Work (MSW) degree, I worked at the Minneapolis VA (2000-2010). During that time, I grew in my ability to support military populations with individual-, group-, couple- and family-based interventions. While at the VA, I started my Ph.D. (2007- 2012) at Smith College. During my Ph.D. program, I developed a research agenda that focused upon military children who were impacted by deployment, and ultimately wrote my dissertation, "Perspectives on Needs of School Children within National Guard Families from Military-Affiliated Providers and Civilian Educators: Implications for School Social Work," about military children who resided within Minnesota communities. I left the VA and joined the faculty at the School of Social Work here at UST (2010-present). At that time, I began to consider the role social work education might play in helping educate students to work with service members, veterans, and their families.

Currently, military social work – which involves direct practice, policy and administration, and “provides prevention, treatment, and rehabilitative services to service members, veterans, their families, and their communities” [Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), 2012] – has become an increasingly important area of focus within higher education. Today’s U.S. military population – comprised of 3.6 million service members (Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, 2012), over 21 million veterans (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011), and their families – have needs for support that have become increasingly complex to articulate, assess and treat. These needs create a demand for social workers who are educated, trained and skilled in working with these populations. Providing this opportunity by way of military- specific curricula within social work education has been an exciting prospect – given estimated enrollment across CSWE accredited programs of 32,000 baccalaureate students across 479 programs and 39,000 master's students across 218 master's programs (CSWE, 2010) – that could reach large numbers of students who will enter practice with individuals, families and groups.

Although one study has been conducted that evaluates military curriculum (Whitworth, Herzog, & Scott, 2012) overall, research literature has not examined the process of developing and implementing military-related curricula within schools of social work. Therefore, as I took on the role of developing curricula, I found it particularly important to employ the help of students, alumni, service members, community members and other educators. Student research assistants participated in the development of comprehensive resources. Students, alumni and community members who worked with military populations or were in the military participated in either a focus group or an online mixed method survey to help establish a curriculum foci as well assess the needs at our school. As a mentor Major Greg Voth from the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of St. Thomas helped me enrich and diversify my knowledge of work with military populations, and served as a co-collaborator during a key phase of curriculum development.

The School of Social Work launched its military social work curricula (two electives) and an Area of Emphasis in Military Practice (AEMP) Scholars program during the 2013-2014 school year. The first course, GRSW534: Military Social Work with Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families, was developed to provide an introduction to and overview of military social work knowledge, skills, and values for working with service members, veterans and their families. The second course, GRSW690: Clinical Practice in Military Social Work, was designed to build upon the foundation course and focus on the development of clinical competencies, use of professional self, integration of theory and knowledge of interventions, and application to direct practice with service members/veterans, couples, family members and groups. Eight AEMP Scholars were accepted as our inaugural cohort of students to focus upon military-specific curricula. They will pursue an emphasis on military social work practice during their time in our program, where they would learn how to apply their knowledge to work with military-connected populations.

Looking back upon this past year, much has been learned about the integration of military social work-specific curricula within our MSW program. The students contributed largely to its success and provided feedback about the curriculum in a number of ways. In addition to in-class assessments and informal feedback that is encouraged within all class settings, students who participated in GRSW534, GRSW690 and the AEMP Scholars Program gave pre- and post-feedback.

Overall, I think being engaged in military-specific research makes me a better instructor, mentor and scholar within the UST community. In the military course I teach (GRSW690), I am able to draw from my years of clinical experience as a social worker at the VA. These experiences provide a reference point when I discuss topics, seek out guest lecturers and ask students for input. In addition to advising students during the academic year, I mentored three students who presented at the 2014 Military and Veteran Social Work Conference in Saint Leo, Florida. Since coming to the School of Social Work, my military-specific scholarship agenda has taken off. I have published a manuscript, Helping Children with the Psychosocial Effects of a Parent’s Deployment: Integrating Today’s Needs with Lessons Learned from the Vietnam War, which provides a consolidated overview of research and theoretical literature relevant to helping social workers support the children of deployed service members. I have also presented nationally: "Social Work Support to Military Families: An Educator Perspective" at the 2011 Annual Conference of the Society for Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) in Atlanta, Georgia; "Military Social Work Advanced Practice Guidelines within Graduate Education: Progress Since 2010?"at the 2013 CSWE conference in Dallas, Texas; and, "The State of Military Social Work Today: Is There Preparation, Presence, and Effectiveness Within Our Graduate-Level Programs?"at the 2014 Military and Veteran Social Work Conference in Saint Leo, Florida.

Dr. Kari L. Fletcher, LICSW is an assistant professor at the School of Social Work. 

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.