Can Social Workers Engage The Post 9/11 Veteran?

Recently, there has been much discussion over the role of social work in the reintegration of our service men and women back into society. The wars of over a decade seem to be drawing to a close, and many social work professionals are in the process of becoming culturally competent to prepare for our warriors’ return. Preparation is unquestionably the best practice and will become an imperative as the Department of Defense is projecting that nearly one million service members will separate from the Armed Forces in the next five years. However, it has been my observation that many in the profession are concerned on how to engage this demographic, especially if they themselves are not veterans.

Being a veteran myself, and currently a social work student, I am often asked by those in academia, if a veteran is willing to engage in a helping relationship where the helper is not a veteran. I have also heard consistent concerns among the profession in engaging veterans at various workshops, panels, and discussions I have attended recently. I must admit that I am troubled at some of the responses to those concerns.

There seems to be a suggestion that engaging will be tough, if not impossible, with veterans if you have not experienced combat or military service in general. There seems to be a theme in recent workshops that peer counseling is essential to facilitate future engagement with a helping professional. Essentially, veterans need to be convinced by other veterans that it is ok to seek help. This idea is not only dangerous, but also undermines the practice skills of the social work profession, and in my opinion, is completely unnecessary. I’m not suggesting that peer counseling is not an important piece of veteran outreach, but it should not be used to soften the veteran up for the engagement stage of the helping process.

As a ten year Army Veteran I would like to offer what insight I can for engaging veterans:


  1. The social worker must be self-aware of their feelings towards war and extreme violence. They must be ready to bear witness to what the veteran will report during sessions. Helpers must make it clear to the veteran that they are ready to listen without judgment and facilitate a safe environment for them to do so (un-conditional positive regard). Does any of this sound familiar?
  2. Engage veterans no differently than you would engage other clients. Veterans do not want to be handled with rubber gloves and many do not see themselves as victims, do not treat them as such. Is a veteran going to tell you his or her must vulnerable thoughts and feelings in your first session together? The answer is probably not, but what client would?
  3. Do not get eager for results and rush the process. Engagement and assessment may take longer because of the fear of judgment; however, I would suggest it would take just as long with a veteran social worker if not longer.


In closing I would like to validate the point that initial engagement may be easier veteran to veteran. However, as the helping process moves along, after the ego defenses have been peeled away and the veteran is most vulnerable; non-veteran social workers will be more effective as the real work begins. Most veterans will not want to be vulnerable in front of another veteran for fear of judgment. This is where, in my opinion, non- veteran social workers will be most vital to the helping process. Essentially, if you facilitate a safe environment, provide un-conditional positive regard, and are ready to bear witness, a non-veteran social worker can and will effect real and positive change in a veteran’s life.

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