The Catholic University of America

Nov. 9, 2012

New Specialization Supports Our Troops


  9/11 service day

Catholic University has a new master's in social work clinical specialization that prepares social workers to address the needs of military service members, veterans, and their families.

On a recent morning in Shahan Hall, master’s-level social work students are watching a documentary called Beating the Odds. The film chronicles the daily life of the Babin family five years after their son, Alan, was critically injured serving as an Army medic in Iraq.

On March 31, 2003, the 23-year-old gave up his covered position to run through small-arms fire to aid a wounded comrade. The young man had enlisted with a desire to serve his country in the wake of 9/11.

The documentary is one in a series titled In Their Boots, developed and produced by five veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who are seeking to educate the general public about the military experience. Rosie, Alan’s mother, speaks to the camera with painful honesty about how her family’s life has changed.

The students watch images of mother, father, and sister helping Alan with his activities of daily living such as dressing and wheelchair transferring. Alan surprised military doctors by surviving. Now his mother is determined to see him walk.

As social workers, some of the graduate students have seen similar situations play out in their professional lives. Some work in veterans’ hospitals, some are from military families, and others are veterans themselves. Their course, Theory and Practice with Military, Veterans, and their Families, is part of a new 61-hour master’s in social work clinical specialization offered by the National Catholic School of Social Service (NCSSS) for the first time this fall.

Following the screening of the documentary, the course instructor, Dorinda Williams, leads a discussion. One student says she was struck by the effect of Alan’s injury on his younger sister, Christy, who was 16 at the time.

“The mom had been involved in the daughter’s school and extracurricular activities and then she was gone for nine months to be at her son’s bedside in Washington during his recovery. That was a loss for her,” observes the student.

“The physical injuries affect everyone in the family and change the day-to-day household dynamics,” says Williams. The students and their instructor discuss the many losses this family experienced.

The young veteran has lost his independence. The sister has lost her innocence. The parents lost their healthy, strong son. And they lost their plans for the future.

“Now our retirement includes three people and that’s OK,” says Rosie. “What will happen to Alan when something happens to me?” she asks.

Williams shows an overhead slide titled Ambiguous Loss Theory. “The loved one is here but not here,” she says, citing literature from Pauline Boss, a researcher who Williams says is the architect of the theory.

“Daddy comes home from war with TBI [traumatic brain injury]. He’s back but he’s not the same. How does a family experience this loss and uncertainty and still move forward with their lives?” the instructor asks her students.

Williams is a licensed clinical social worker and director of Military Family Projects at ZERO TO THREE, a national non-profit center dedicated to improving the lives of infants, toddlers, and their families. She is also a military spouse and a Ph.D. candidate at NCSSS.

Susanne Bennett, associate professor of social work, led the effort to develop the military specialization as part of the M.S.W. clinical concentration and now serves as its director.

“I don’t have a background in military issues, but I was inspired by Dorinda and other students of mine who are veterans,” says Bennett. Her clinical and research expertise lies in the area of attachment processes within families. “I am very concerned with how separation issues are affecting military families.

“After more than a decade at war, we have huge numbers of troops coming home with psychosocial and physical stresses. As social workers we have to be prepared to help them, not just in military facilities but in all of our communities,” says Bennett.

In the spring semester two more new courses will be offered as part of the specialization: a 1-credit course titled Military Culture: Implications for Practice, taught by Claudia Mackie, a veteran and a NCSSS PhD graduate, and a 3-credit course for second-year graduate students titled Policies Supporting Troops, Veterans, and Their Families, taught by Chad Majiros, who is a doctoral student at NCSSS and a veteran who works for the VA.

In addition to the new master’s specialization, NCSSS’s doctoral program has a collaborative arrangement with the Child and Family Study Fellowship Program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., that provides active-duty military social workers the opportunity to pursue their Ph.D. during the fellowship. The school also has a Military Social Work Initiative Center that focuses on curriculum, research, service, and continuing education.

Williams says she is proud not just to be a doctoral student at NCSSS, but also to be part of this new program to train social workers to address the unique needs of today’s military personnel.

“In the military we never leave a fallen comrade behind. I see this [specialization] as my duty,” said one of the graduate social work students in the class who is also a veteran.


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