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July 2008

Op-ed: A Call to Arms for Social Workers

By Carolyn Jacobs, dean of the Smith College School for Social Work and a member of the National Social Work Educators' Task Force on Veterans' Affairs.

Those outside the social work profession may not have noticed when the Council for Social Work Education appointed a national panel to look into how schools can better prepare students to serve the needs of returning soldiers.

But those of us whose business is the education of social workers recognize that was a sea change in the profession. Social work educators – long a bastion of anti-war advocates – need to know that supporting warriors is not the same as supporting the war. We need to begin teaching now about how to treat veterans because our students will be treating the troops of current military conflicts for years to come.

Discomfort with war has long permeated schools for social work, creating internal conflicts for professors and students. How can we teach about treating soldiers while being fundamentally against the horror and atrocities of battle, we often ask. In the absence of a clear directive from the professional organization, silence resounded. Treatment of Vietnam veterans met with a similar response and, by extension, silenced veterans. More than three decades after the end of that war, some soldiers are just now beginning to open up and seek help for the issues they have struggled with since.

But in the face of an estimated 300,000 service members with PTSD and another 320,000 with traumatic brain injuries, silence is not an option. We cannot ignore a vulnerable population of men, women and children whose lives have been affected by the latest conflicts. They are people battling the problems that we know how to treat: alcoholism, homelessness, drug abuse, sleeplessness, loss of intimacy, loss of a parent and divorce.

In fact, many of our nation’s social work schools were founded specifically to address the needs of the veterans returning from World War I and II with what was then termed “shell shock.” In the decades since, that diagnosis has become outdated even as support for United States military action has ebbed and flowed depending on the particular conflict and social culture of the times.

In addition to the Council for Social Work Education’s panel, there are some signs that schools for social work are beginning to respond to returning troops. When practitioners recently gathered on the New England campus of Smith College for a national conference on treating combat stress, registration was forced to close weeks early because of overwhelming interest. Social workers – both military and civilian – shared stories of their schools encouraging field placements in veterans hospitals and adding courses about soldiers’ needs to the curriculum. Three years ago, the Smith College School for Social Work established a scholarship program for military members who commit to serving that population. The first scholarship recipient, Candice Karber of the Washington D.C. National Guard, who completed a field placement at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, will graduate next month.

To be certain, more needs to be done. There is a dearth of knowledge about the specific problems faced by veterans of the current conflicts. Books about Vietnam veterans offer a start. But Vietnam veterans do not look like veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom – a conflict fought with large numbers of part-time forces such as the National Guard and reservists, and by women.

This is not the time for politics or partisan positions. We know that the combat stress experienced by those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan will affect families long after the last troops return home; in this position social work stands unified with military leaders who share an equal commitment to soldiers and veterans. Social workers need to partner in this effort and begin training clinicians to treat that trauma now – not three decades from now.


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