Since her employment as a civilian military social worker for the U.S. Army, Fordham GSS professor Mary Ann Forgey, Ph.D., has made it her mission to educate fellow social workers about the important field of military social work — both here at Fordham and around the world. Her latest effort comes through a new book, titled Military Social Work Around the Globe, published last month by Springer which she co-edited with Karen Green-Hurdle, a military social work colleague in Australia.
The book contains chapters written by experts from 11 of the 29 countries identified to date that employ social workers within their national defense departments, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, and the USA,. In addition, there are also contributions from two countries interested in the utilization of social workers in this capacity (Japan and Ukraine), as well as one that has already taken steps to do so (Slovakia).
The book’s contents explain and analyze each country’s perspective and individual approach toward military social work.
Forgey, a professor at GSS since 1993, was previously employed as a civilian military social worker for the U.S. Army in Wiesbaden, Germany, where she served as Director of Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Program Manager. She created and implemented the first military social work elective course at GSS, and organized the first roundtable conference on International Military Social Work held at West Point in 2019. Forgey is also a founding member and coordinator for the International Military Social Work Consortium, a group of uniformed and civilian military social work practitioners, educators, and researchers from over 15 countries.
We sat down with Forgey to discuss this new book, the importance of military social work, and what we can learn from other countries who do military social work well.
In your own words, what is military social work, what do military social workers do, and why is it so important?
Military social workers provide support to military service members on various levels. When I say various levels of support, I mean on the individual level, on the family level, and often on a broader level to the unit itself and to the military community at large. While this book is specifically focused on social work within the military, military social work can also be defined more broadly, and that broader definition includes social work practice with the veteran community.
In terms of the role of social workers within the military, it is to address the fairly common psychological and social support needs that military service members and their families have as a result of service: the operational stressors that occur for example from multiple moves, from not knowing if, when, and where they’re going to be deployed, or from being on-call 24/7, and the stressors of deployment including the specific stressors related to combat, peace keeping, and disaster relief missions.
The book gives a variety of international perspectives on military social work, and how it is conducted in other countries. What are the common themes of implementation that are successful in the featured countries, and what are some common challenges?
I think one of the successful strategies employed by certain countries involves military social workers working not only with the individual, but with the unit as a whole. When social workers practice in this way, they see both the individual service member and the unit as their client. In these countries, the social workers are actually embedded in those units. And for the most part, this type of practice is carried out by uniformed military social workers when the unit is deployed. But there are countries, and the U.S. is one of them to a certain extent, where uniformed, as well as civilian military social workers, are also embedded in units when a unit is not deployed.
This type of embedded practice is so critical because it helps to address one of the major issues with providing effective support, and that is the stigma that is associated with help seeking, particularly within the military population. There is often fear that seeking help could hurt the member’s career, it could hurt their reputation, or it could make them look weak. And so, when the military social worker is embedded in the unit, there’s more of a potential to develop relationships and trust with the service members in that unit. Embedded military social workers can also see the issues as they’re developing, which allows them to work in a more preventative way with the service members, the unit as a whole, and its leadership. The success of this form of practice within the military in the U.S. has recently led to the Justice Department looking at this model for police departments across the U.S.
The other successful strategy identified was that some countries seem to do a better job of linking the service member upon discharge with needed civilian resources. In the U.S., we have the Department of Defense and the Veterans’ Administration, and social workers are employed separately in both, but there is very little linking of services between these two organizations. As a result, for the most part, when a service member is discharged, they are on their own to negotiate the maze of services available to them. Some countries do more. The social workers working within the military in these countries provide more services aimed specifically at assisting service members during the military to civilian transition either by providing these services directly or linking them to services in the civilian sector.
You say that when you first got into academia, some colleagues didn’t know about military social workers. Why do you think that is?
My personal experience was that there was an understanding and a recognition of social workers who work with veterans, but what surprised many was that there are social workers, both uniformed and civilian, actually working directly within the military for the Department of Defense.
I think as a result of the Iraq-Afghanistan wars, there’s now more of an understanding of this role and of the need for social workers within the U.S. military. However, what still remains relatively unknown, is that many other countries also employ social workers to work within their own militaries.
I also think there is a certain ambivalence on the part of some social workers about social work practice within the military. Some question the appropriateness of this role—should we be working directly in support of the military mission? I understand the concern, and I think military social workers deal with that ethical dilemma as part of the work they do. But I believe strongly that social workers are needed in that role. Being in the military can be very stressful and hard on the soul. And social workers, as well as other helping disciplines, are critical to addressing the needs of any type of workers—including the needs of military service members and their families. We need as humane a military as possible, and the best way, I think, to achieve this is to treat our military humanely, and that means addressing their psychological and social support needs.
Can one be a successful military social worker, if they don’t believe in war?
I think they can. But they have to be very, very careful about not imposing those views on their clients. I used to start out the Military Social Work class asking the students, what first comes to mind when they think about the military? And there were some students who tended to think of all military members as heroes, and others who saw them more as victims, and then there were also some that saw them more as villains. I’m generalizing, but these kind of gut reactions are important for social workers to be aware of. And I’d tell the students, it’s important for you to understand how you are approaching your work. If you are viewing all service members as heroes, the questions that you will ask or don’t ask, will be influenced by that—and you may be dealing with someone who doesn’t feel like a hero, and you risk blocking the expression of their own feelings about their service as a result.
Similarly, if you see them more as victims, you may not learn about the good experiences they had in the military, and the strengths that they gained as a result—because of your mindset. So your number one job is to get control of your own feelings about doing this work and your own biases about the military, so that you can be more respectfully curious about a service member’s individual experience in order to help them understand that experience. And I would say, if you can’t do that, then yes, you have to question whether military social work is the right place for you.
Do you think having military experience prior to your social work career would benefit your ability as a military social worker to establish that rapport? Or do you think it could skew your ability to detach from the situation, having been there previously?
I think it is both. I’ve had veterans in the class, and sometimes, because they’ve had the experience, the students look to them as experts in relation to anything in the military. And they come to realize that while they have much to share in relation to their own experience, there are aspects of military service that they do not know anything about. I had one student who came to me and said, I feel so guilty; I was never deployed and everyone thinks that I was because I am a veteran. And I said, but you’ve been in the military, you need to share your experience, even if it didn’t involve deployment. By doing this, he helped his classmates learn about some of the false assumptions they were making about military service.
In the class, I’ve also spoken with the veterans in the course about the need for self-reflection about their own individual experience within the military, how they felt about it and what they learned from their experience in the military, what they didn’t learn, and the areas that they don’t know much about. It’s important for them to understand their own lens, as it could end up influencing the questions they ask and what they assume about a client’s military experience.
Will there be another Military Social Work Conference?
Hopefully yes. But if we do, we would have to have a venue that would have a certain level of attraction for the international community, as the West Point location did. Interestingly though, prior to suggesting West Point as the site for the first conference, I had some concerns about this. I thought, I don’t want to be U.S.-centric; we could have it anywhere. I have found in doing this international work, that it is so important to be aware of [the United States’]power, and the ways that we can dominate without even knowing it, because of our numbers and resources. But when I suggested West Point everyone jumped at the opportunity. When I raised the concern about being U.S. centric everyone said no, no, we want to come there, and I realized that, yes, there was an attraction to coming to a place so well known, especially within the international military community. And I think, as a result of it being there, we were able to attract participants from across the globe. So the biggest challenge in planning the next one will be to find an equally attractive venue for international participants.
Planning this conference was also extremely time-consuming but well, well worth it. Given the amount of work and cost involved, the Consortium is exploring the possibility of being part of an existing international conference of social workers rather than being a stand-alone conference. This would significantly cut down on the time and resources needed for the planning of the conference and would also allow participants to attend other international sessions of interest.