Stumbling into a career in military social work

Samara Freemark
Reporter
Public Insight Network

Earlier this week I wrote about Eddie Black, a National Guardsman who returned from deployment with anxiety and anger problems — but didn’t realize he needed help until, almost by accident, he found himself speaking with a therapist who helped him “feel his body again.”

Today, the other side of that story: a therapist who stumbled into the field of military mental health and has made it her life’s work.

Eugenia Weiss is a clinical social worker, psychologist, and professor in the University of Southern California’s Military Social Work program who has worked with service people and veterans for almost 20 years. But when she first started, she didn’t know anything about the military. Here is some of Weiss’ story as she told it to me in a phone interview last week.


I didn’t set out to work with the military or veterans. I had no connection, no family in the military. I hadn’t served [in the military] myself. It all kind of fell into my lap. Twenty years ago, I was just starting out, and I opened a private practice near Camp Pendleton [a Marine base in California]. All of sudden, military people started showing up. I thought, “Where are these people coming from?” I had no idea.

At that time there was nothing written out, nothing to read about dealing with this population. The material there all came from Vietnam veterans, so it was out of date. I was flying blind, but I was hungry for learning and exposure. So I went to the base to talk to people about what they needed, what their lives were like, that kind of thing. The base is an entire cohesive community. I went to see where they lived, how they lived, what their communities looked like, where they would go for fun, where they would go bowling, get pizza. I went into schools.

The learning curve was big. Even stuff like knowing the different branches, echelons, ranks, who’s who and what people do. The military is its own culture, with its own lingo and language. I wasn’t taught that in school — that was all new. I had to learn and adjust and reach out. You need all that to relate to your clients.

Eugenia Weiss, USC School of Social Work

Eugenia Weiss is a professor at the University of Southern California’s Military Social Work program. (Photo courtesy USC)

When I started with all this, it was kind of taboo to talk about social work and the military. I remember about five years ago I submitted a paper on working with military populations to a professional conference. The organizers said, “This is very interesting, but it’s not relevant to social work.” It seemed like they were saying, “We don’t want that, we’re against war.” But you can be against war but for the warrior. They’re people just like us.

Now things have changed, and that’s all they’re asking for. People want to know more. For example: the American Psychological Association Conference is next summer.  They just sent out a special call for presentations on military and veterans issues. It’s the first time I’ve seen that kind of overt interest.

I love the strengths and challenges of working with this population. They have unbelievable stressors that civilians don’t have. The mobility part alone — they move every few years. Their families have to move with them and make these big transitions. That piece of mobility is in and of itself very stressful. Then we started with the wars and the lengthy multiple deployments that take such a toll on service members and their families. And the trauma that gets passed down. And then all the [health] conditions that come with all that: substance abuse, domestic violence. The problems are so complex, and they’ve just grown.

The need for services is only going to increase among service people and veterans. We’re at the tip of the iceberg. First of all, there are a lot more guys and gals who are still coming home and transitioning into civilian lives. But it’s more than that. Sometimes it takes awhile to see problems. Post traumatic stress, for example, can take a long time to manifest. You come home, things start to slowly deteriorate, now you have a DUI, then you get divorced, then your kids won’t talk to you, then you’re homeless…and then you seek services. We haven’t seen it all yet. Not even close. There’s a lot of work to be done. Hopefully we’ll have the resources we need to get it done.

>> What’s your experience with health services or social work after deployment? Help us cover the modern veterans experience.

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Samara Freemark Reporter
Public Insight Network

Reporter/producer Samara Freemark joined the Public Insight Network after four years at Radio Diaries in New York City, where she spent her time helping ordinary people tell their extraordinary stories for NPR. In the process, she developed an unshakeable belief in the beauty and power of personal narrative.

Before Radio Diaries Samara worked as an environmental reporter, a posting that took her to sinking islands, Superfund sites, and literal snakepits – Burmese pythons, to be exact. She also churned out copy and tape in the newsroom of WUOM Ann Arbor. Before settling on a career in radio she tried out policy research, community organizing, and urban planning before deciding she preferred soundwaves to spreadsheets.