By Kaitlin Louie
About Jaclyn Fischer-Urmey, LCSW: Jaclyn Fischer-Urmey is the Director of Psychological Health (DPH) for the 514th Air Mobility Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. Prior to her position as the Director of Psychological Health, Ms. Fischer-Urmey was Head of the Social Work Department at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, as well as Assistant Officer-in-Charge on the Navy Mobile Care Team FIVE for Navy Central Command in Afghanistan. She also worked as an Advocacy Clinical Counselor for Fleet and Family Support Center in Yokosuka, Japan, and as an Inpatient and Outpatient Clinical Social Worker and Head of the Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program at the Naval Hospital in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Ms. Fischer-Urmey is an Adjunct Professor of Social Work at Monmouth University, where she will be teaching a seminar in June of 2015, titled The Happy Warrior: Social Workers In and Out of Uniform. This seminar will tell the stories of social workers, in and out of uniform, who work to support military service members and their families.
Ms. Fischer-Urmey has earned numerous awards for her services in military settings, including several Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals for such achievements as developing regional family advocacy initiatives and providing clinical support on an isolated overseas base. She also earned an Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Gold Star in 2012 for leadership in Afghanistan. Ms. Fischer-Urmey is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in New Jersey, and received her Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW) in 2010. She is also a Certified Clinical Social Work Supervisor.
Ms. Fischer-Urmey earned her Bachelor of Social Work from Monmouth University in 2003, and her Master’s of Social work in 2004 from the same institution.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Could you please give us an overview of your career path in military social work, including how you arrived at your current role?
[Jaclyn Fischer-Urmey, LCSW] I earned my MSW from Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey in 2004. Following the conferral of my degree and shortly after obtaining my license to provide supervised clinical care (or LSW), I provided supervised clinical mental health services to incarcerated juveniles at the New Jersey Training School for Boys in Monroe Township, New Jersey, for 2.5 years, when I received my independent clinical license, or LSCW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker). During the final year of my employment in Monroe Township, I began my application to the United States Navy for a Direct Commission into the Medical Service Corps, and was hired in 2007 as a uniformed social worker in the United States Navy.
Each employment I held with the U.S. Navy provided increased leadership and challenges for professional and personal development. My first 21-month assignment serving concurrently as an Inpatient and Outpatient Clinical Social Worker and Head of the Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program (SARP) in the Behavioral Health Unit at Naval Hospital Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was my first solo mental health provider assignment and administrative leadership role. I was the only uniformed LCSW on the isolated installation with 9,000 residents, and despite my lack of military experience at the time, the leadership and staff of the hospital respected me as a subject matter expert on mental health matters.
My second Navy assignment was 28 months as a Clinical Advocacy Counselor for the Fleet and Family Support Program in Yokosuka, Japan. I selected this tour based on the type of position (working with domestic violence), as I was simply curious as to my skill set with that population, and location, as I was single and eager to travel. I discovered that no matter the work, I had the ability to apply myself and be successful in that area, and I also enjoyed various travel opportunities within Japan and surrounding countries.
My third Navy assignment (29 months) was selected based on location, close to my home state of New Jersey, and increased my responsibilities, as I was Head of the Social Work Department at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia. My work there was enhanced significantly by the experience I gained during a 7-month concurrent combat deployment to Afghanistan, as the Assistant Officer-in-Charge of a 5-person Navy unit called Mobile Care Team FIVE. It was in Afghanistan that I learned that true leadership starts with taking care of one’s team and ensuring the safety of all, which assisted me in successfully guiding my team once back in Virginia to increase productivity so much that we won an award for it.
Marriage was the main factor in my decision to leave active duty for the Individual Ready Reserves and to come back home to New Jersey, where I was honored to be selected as the first Director of Psychological Health for the 514th Air Mobility Wing, Air Force Reserve Command, at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. This federal position is the convergence of all my prior employments, which makes me a very blessed person.
In addition to my LCSW, I am a Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW) and a member of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). My previous awards include the Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Gold Star, four Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, and one Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. I look forward to my U.S. Navy Reserve promotion to Lieutenant Commander in August 2015.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Can you give an overview of your core responsibilities as the Director of Psychological Health for the 514th Air Mobility Wing? What types of challenges do the individuals in the Air Force face, and how do you help them manage these challenges?
[Jaclyn Fischer-Urmey, LCSW] In my current role as Director of Psychological Health for the 514th Air Mobility Wing, Air Force Reserve Command, I serve as the sole mental health consultant for the 2,200 reservists and civilians attached to the wing. This position is a general schedule (GS) civil servant position. My responsibilities include serving as the Air Force Reserve liaison with military and non-military agencies to promote timely information exchange, coordinate collaborative prevention efforts, and establish and maintain an extensive array of resources, associations, and community partnerships. The role also includes designing, developing, coordinating, and implementing prevention and community outreach and prevention efforts. I’m responsible for marketing and marketing evaluation activities for my program. I provide professional consultation, advice, education, and training to other military and non-military healthcare professionals, medical personnel, military commanders/senior leaders, wing personnel and their family members. Lastly, I provide psycho-diagnostic assessments and short-term, brief solution-focused counseling services to military and civilian personnel.
Air Force Reserve personnel face many challenges that are common among most people, but what sets their difficulty at a higher level is their constant shift between civilian and military statuses on a monthly basis. This constant transitioning requires mental fitness and resilience in order to maintain the separate requirements of each lifestyle and perform required duties sufficiently and satisfactorily. This is very different from the active duty requirement, which is a full-time commitment with no shift between civilian and military statuses.
In order to understand the reserve culture, I’ll provide a brief explanation of reserve requirements, which is the same for the Air and Army National Guard. Reservists are assigned to a position within a unit, where they serve one weekend a month and two weeks a year. For each day of military duty, reservists earn points, and in order to remain in good standing with the military, they are required to maintain a certain amount of points each year. Military reserve units have a fiscal year schedule, requiring certain units to report on specific days throughout the year; however, members may reschedule their duty days if civilian and military schedules conflict. This flexibility assists with retention of members. The guard and reserve are attractive to people who desire to serve their country, but cannot commit to full-time status, or active duty. Reservists are also not necessarily from the state where they drill. Depending on where the duty assignment is located in conjunction with the rank they are, some travel across country from their homes to their units.
Working with reservists requires a knowledge base of general life and psychosocial stressors, in addition to understanding military culture, deployment cycle, and civilian-military life issues. Reservists are called upon to deploy worldwide when and as often as needed, so they and their families must always be ready. A large part of my role is assisting members and/or family members with developing resilience and navigating life stressors in order to “meet the mission,” or be deployment-ready, as well as be satisfied in their civilian life and military career. Reservist backgrounds vary widely–some are prior active duty and transitioned to the reserves in order to have more stability in life, whereas some have no prior military background. They can be employed or unemployed. Some are successful civilian professionals who make six-figure salaries, and enlisted to serve their country. Others are struggling paycheck to paycheck. Others are homeless. Helping members through struggles in life is possible with the variety of resources available to the military, including but not limited to Military OneSource, Psychological Health Advocacy Program, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and the Defense Center of Excellence.
In my role, I help the member identify the problem(s), find a solution, and navigate local and national resources that ultimately lead to a solution, if needed. I also offer psychoeducational classes and trainings on a regular basis to groups of military, civilian, and family members across the installation that target psychological health (i.e. resilience-, relationship-, and reintegration-oriented). A large part of what I provide is based on what needs I’m seeing and what I’m hearing from others and my efforts to reach out to and assist others have been well-received at all levels of leadership in my current position. I continue to fight the stigma of seeking help; however, my work here has been very rewarding thus far due to developing solid working relationships with a variety of military and civilian leaders who truly care about the well-being of their people.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] You have worked in numerous countries, including Cuba, Afghanistan, and Japan. Is it common for military social workers to have to relocate? How did you handle the challenges that came with these frequent relocations?
[Jaclyn Fischer-Urmey, LCSW] The opportunity to travel is one of the most significant factors as to why people join the armed forces. When one joins the military, they volunteer to be sent anywhere in the world where they are most needed. Anyone who joins should expect to travel, whether it’s within the continental United States or outside thereof. Even if one is ultimately assigned to an area close to their home, odds are that they had to travel to where their enlisted or officer training or trade school was located within the United States. The amount of travel is dependent upon the unit and duty to which the member is assigned. For instance, some military duties are attached to expeditionary teams, where the purpose of the team is to travel and support operations away from the home base. Other duties are situated at a base where there is minimal work-related travel. But regardless of where the assignment is, travel opportunities abound outside of the duty hours; the decision to take advantage of such opportunities is dependent upon the individual.
Active duty and civilian military social workers are needed all over the world in a variety of capacities in every branch of service and government organization. It is not uncommon for civilian military social workers to voluntarily relocate to different countries in order to take advantage of promotion opportunities or to experience a new culture. For active duty social workers, relocation is an expectation and requirement for flexibility in order to meet the needs of the branch of service to which one is assigned. Civilian and active duty social workers all serve the same population: military members and their families, no matter where they are assigned. Active duty and civilian responsibilities can differ depending on the branch and mission of the unit with which they work. Active duty social workers are often preferred in leadership positions to assist with the relationship between the social work service and external military personnel; this also assists with dispelling stigma, as a military mental health representative can be viewed as “one of us” by other military personnel.
Often times, active duty social workers will seek out opportunities in different states and countries to expand their experience and will feel comfortable doing so being that they know there is security in being associated with the military. For civilian social workers, there are more risks in moving nationally or internationally. For instance, active duty social workers have job security, will rotate positions eventually regardless of whether or not they enjoy their current position, have unlimited access to free dental and health care, receive a monthly stipend that usually covers rent, receive incentive or special pays for additional credentials, and receive an increase in pay if they are simply married. Traditional civilian social workers may have to prepare more in order to have a successful transition to a new state or country and although connected through their military counterparts, have more responsibility in order to get settled. Regardless of these trials faced by civilian social workers, few times are they persuaded from the challenge of a new opportunity in a new place.
My experiences with relocation to Cuba, Japan, and Afghanistan were relatively stress-free, as I prepared myself to hold as few expectations as possible about the new location to which I was moving. Although well-intentioned, many people offered pros and cons about wherever I was going, and as much as I expressed gratitude for them sharing, I was cautious in allowing it to shape my expectations. When one has expectations, there is an open door for disappointment, which is difficult to overcome when in a new country without a local support system in place. Many times when I counseled people for acclimation issues, it usually surrounded an unfulfilled expectation: “I expected my relationship to get better once we got here”, “I thought it was going to be different” or “Everyone told me this place was great…” That unfulfilled expectation, and, ultimately, disappointment, becomes the foundation for a person’s experience in a new place. I chose to create my own expectations based upon my experiences. Each experience lent to a bout of personal growth and I was more prepared with each move.
Being active duty offered me a free move, so besides scheduling the household goods packers and pick up date, there was minimal effort outside of simply organizing my belongings for packing. The same went for delivery; I selected the delivery date and the movers unpacked all the crates and boxes. It’s not uncommon for members to arrive at their next duty station, or assignment, weeks to months before their household goods arrive. Depending on the location, the host command may have furniture rental or household goods services available to assist until the members’ household goods arrive. In addition to physical comforts, most military branches have sponsorship programs, which are designed for newly arriving members to be paired with a military member in a close pay grade to assist with assimilation to the new assignment. I was blessed with very supportive and helpful sponsors.
In Guantanamo Bay, my sponsor was a co-located nurse officer, married to an active duty physician’s assistant, with two small children. In Japan, my sponsor was a single female operations officer. Both picked me up from the airport (with family in tow, if applicable), took me to lodging, fed me, assisted me with obtaining needed household goods, showed me where work was, and (Japan only) went apartment and car shopping with me until I found the right one. My transition to Virginia required less involvement due to my familiarity with the US, but nonetheless, my sponsor, a single male psychologist officer, met with me several times to share about the local area and took me sightseeing.
If unfamiliar with a location and no prior established relationships exists, sponsors are amazing help and a valuable resource in helping an outsider feel like they belong to a community relatively quickly. In addition to sponsors, having supportive friends and family to contact regularly assisted with the transition as it offered some stability during a period of instability and acclimation. Knowing I could pick up the phone and call my best friend or my mother, no matter the time of day or night (depending on the time zone), and they’d be happy to hear from me helped me feel connected to my loved ones.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Since you have worked as a social worker in both the Navy and in the Air Force, could you speak to how the differences in culture and structure between Navy and the Air Force impacted the role of the military social worker in these settings?
[Jaclyn Fischer-Urmey, LCSW] Each branch of military service has its own distinct history and culture. Each branch was founded at a specific time in American history depending on the needs of the United States. Despite the uniqueness of each branch, there are overwhelming similarities that create a strong bond between each one. For instance, each branch, whether the Army (est. June 14, 1775), Navy (est. October 13, 1775), Marine Corps (est. November 10, 1775), Coast Guard (est. August 4, 1790), and the Air Force (est. September 18, 1947), and all reserve and guard components, respectively, have a code of conduct and core values. Codes of conduct dictate the appropriate behavior of men and women wearing the uniform of a particular branch, and core values represent the foundational principles on which all decisions are made. Having worked directly for the Navy and Air Force, and with all branches of service, the codes of conduct and core values are similar and complement one another.
The differences that are the greatest and most noticeable among branches of service are in the type of missions that each branch provides to support and defend the United States. For the purpose of this interview, my focus will be mainly on the Navy and Air Force and Air Force Reserve. The Navy’s primary purpose is to accomplish missions by sea, air, and land; the Navy maintains constant vigil over the seas and oceans around the world to ensure a stable environment for trade and travel. The Air Force and Air Force Reserve flies planes, helicopters, and satellites in order to provide security and air and space power. Each branch has military personnel in administrative, technical, maintenance, and support positions to assist with the successful execution of the mission, and operation of all equipment. With the variety of mission requirements and supports needed to make the mission happen, service members face challenges specific to those requirements (job stressors such as frequent moves, relocations, training requirements, transitions, family separations, work-family life balance issues, family conflicts, promotions) along with every day personal struggles of daily life involving relationships, parenting, stress management, personal development, family of origin, and countless other stressors. However, despite the differences in missions between the Navy (mainly ships and shore duty) and Air Force (mainly aircraft and landlocked locations), some challenges appear to be relatively similar.
Other challenges are very different, especially between active duty and the reserves. Active duty personnel have a variety of services, free of charge, available to them 24/7. Reservists have limited services, free of charge or at coast, available to them only on the days that they are on orders, or drilling, which is 2 weeks per year and one weekend a month. The services available to reservists are mostly provided by active duty, who usually do not offer services on weekends, leaving reservists with a gap in services when they are on duty, unless they are on orders for their 2 weeks a year during weekdays. The Air Force Reserve Command began hiring DPHs in 2014 for this exact purpose – to fill the gap in services for the reservists. Some of the challenges unique to reservists are limited access to military healthcare, possible geographical separation from available services, distance to assigned unit (may be out of state), struggles for military leadership to constantly remain aware of the personal struggles of their reservists, poor reporting of suicidal ideation, completed suicides, and other mental health issues of reservists while off duty, meeting military fitness standards, maintaining military bearing, and maintaining deployment readiness when only on duty 2 days a month, and conflicts between civilian employment and military obligations.
Both Navy and Air Force social work communities began with the same basic structure, with mental health care, family advocacy program, or FAP (domestic violence work), and substance abuse services being offered in military treatment facilities or clinics. Currently, the Air Force still maintains this structure; however, the Navy separated out the family advocacy program from medical facilities in order to decrease stigma linked with the services being associated with the mental health clinics and to increase the amount of services available. Social workers, in and out of uniform, support both branches of services.
Below, a chart demonstrates the differences and equivalents in vocabulary for complementary roles in Navy and Air Force social work, respectively.
|No Equivalent||Squadron Commander, Flight Commander|
|FAP Department Head||Family Advocacy Officer|
|SARP Department Head||ADAPT Program Manager|
|Mental/Behavioral Health Unit Department Head||Mental Health OIC|
|Mental Health Provider||Mental Health Provider|
|Embedded Mental Health Provider with Special Operations Groups||Embedded Mental Health Provider with Special Operations Groups|
|Consultant to Senior Leadership||MAJCOM Consultant; to Senior Leadership|
|Health Care Analyst/Administration||Health Care Analyst/Administration|
|No Equivalent||Director of Psychological Health|
FAP: Family Advocacy Program
SARP: Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program
ADAPT: Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Program
OIC: Officer in Charge
MAJCOM: Major Commands of the US Air Force
My current role is unlike any single role I’ve held previously. As a DPH, I am an embedded mental health consultant in an otherwise non-mental health environment. The 514th Air Mobility Wing, where I work, shares the responsibility of maintaining and flying the KC-10A Extender and the C-17 Globemaster III with the active duty 305th Air Mobility Wing, also at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. The 514th has 20 units with approximately 2,200 reserve personnel assigned. I am the sole social worker for the wing, and have no immediate equivalent with whom to consult, requiring me to be active in networking with other DPHs in other states or bases. This is a very independent role, whereas all my other roles included a clinical support team, in one way or another. Because of the autonomy, this role is for a seasoned social worker, who can work efficiently and well with little supervision or oversight.
Otherwise, this role blends together a variety of former duties I’ve held; for instance, I assess for mental health needs and provide referrals and resources, as I did in my mental health provider role; I assess for family advocacy or safety issues and provide psychoeducation, as I did in my Advocacy Clinical Counselor role; I’ve created and administered documents pertaining to the position, as I did in my Department Head role; I also relate to the members who have deployed, as I did in my deployed role; I have been the suicide prevention program coordinator for each military-associated assignment I’ve held. I’ve administered needs assessment surveys, created programs and classes targeting needs, briefed leadership on trends, staffed meetings, participated in base-wide community partnerships, mentored recently acquired DPHs, shared about the joys of social work with prospective social workers, and recently began providing mental health care in the active duty mental health clinic one day a week to keep my clinical credentials and skills up to par. This new position is still developing and growing as new needs are identified and more eager participants and military members seek additional support.
The term “embedded” generally refers to a position within a unit, or an assignment allowed to function only within the boundaries of a certain unit. For example, as previously mentioned, expeditionary military units have missions that are located away from the home base; an active duty social worker can be embedded to that unit, deploying and reintegrating with the same military personnel time and time again. This can assist with transition and getting to know personnel in order to prevent negative mental health outcomes. Historically, chaplains have been embedded with military units in order to provide continuity and consistency with relationships and support during expeditionary assignments. Civilians can be embedded to a unit as well, that is, they can be assigned to work for a specific military unit. Civilian social workers are not authorized to embed with expeditionary units, as military combat/deployment training is a requirement to deploy with an expeditionary unit. My current position is an embedded mental health consultant position, where my primary focus is the members of a specific reserve wing. Although I’m allowed to open up classes to the entire installation, the majority of my services are offered only to the members of the wing to which I am assigned.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] You have taken on numerous leadership roles within the field of social work, including, not just your work as a Director of Psychological Health, but also your work as the Head of the Inpatient and Outpatient Clinical Social Work Program at the Naval Hospital in Guantanamo Bay, and as Head of the Social Work Department at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth. How did these leadership roles differ from the roles of social workers who mainly counsel and treat patients?
[Jaclyn Fischer-Urmey, LCSW] Many leadership roles in the social work field are focused on the administrative functions in support of a department or organization. These roles require someone with a social work background to understand the needs of and the population being served and the functioning of an organization, which includes interpersonal and managerial skills, administrative acumen, understanding of policy, and the ability to establish and maintain necessary internal and external relationships in order to promote and receive support for the department. Often times, and as was in my case, social workers who have established a solid foundation for their clinical practice seek a higher level of responsibility and, therefore, apply for administrative, or leadership, roles.
Whether military or not, certain positions may blend the administrative and clinical pieces together, allowing for a more well-rounded experience and the opportunity to keep clinical skills sharp while focusing a large part of energy on the administrative role. This requires juggling of roles and knowing when to perform in what role, as well as maintaining a respective distance personally from subordinates with whom one may work closely regarding clinical matters in order to maintain the capacity for administrative and military discipline. As Head of the Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program (SARP) in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, I concurrently served as a Mental Health Clinician in the Behavioral Health Unit (BHU), as SARP was a program within the BHU. My main role as Head of SARP was as the Licensed Independent Practitioner, or LIP, and to formally diagnose military members with substance abuse disorders, following a very rigorous screening by a seasoned substance-abuse trained psychiatric technician.
Following a diagnosis, the technician and I would coordinate the transfer and inpatient care of the member to a stateside facility. Following the member’s completion of treatment and return to the island, the technician and I would hold mandatory weekly continuing care groups, and individual sessions as needed, to assist the member with his or her return to duties and/or support during an administrative discharge for substance use. During my tenure, the technician and I created the first-ever continuing care group program in the installation’s history. Aside from that role, I also performed psychodiagnostic assessments and offered clinical mental health treatment to military members and a variety of other residents on the island, to include Cuban nationals, Cuban migrants, Philippine and Jamaican contractors, family members and children, and Joint Task Force civilian staff (including interrogators). Working in Cuba kept my skills very sharp, as I was constantly learning about new cultures and practicing cultural relativity to help in the best ways I could, which was enhanced by boat rides across the bay to where the Cuban migrants were housed, into the home health neighborhood of the Cuban nationals, or throughout the base to different homes and departments, including the Joint Task Force side of the installation. This was the most professionally diverse location at which I have ever worked.
My role at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth (NMCP) was ninety-percent administrative, which was much different from my time in Cuba. Part of maintaining my mandatory credentialing, or ability to practice clinically in a military treatment facility such as NMCP, required clinical contacts, so through coordination with my assistant department head, we co-facilitated process groups for military members awaiting medical discharges for serious mental health issues (including schizophrenia, personality disorders, and severe anxiety and depressive disorders). During a period of low-staffing in my department, I offered clinical consultation services in areas in need of additional support to alleviate the burden of the workload from my staff of thirteen licensed clinical social workers which had shrunk down to nine. For nine months, my assistant department head stepped up to the main department head role in my absence while deployed. We stayed in contact regarding important issues during that time, and when I returned, the staff was receptive and eager to include me back into the team. My leadership style had changed from before I deployed, which was when I had little administrative experience, as Cuba was mostly clinical, to having survived a combat deployment while co-leading a small Navy unit, which assisted in my development of a more direct leadership approach and the ability to more quickly process and respond to clinical and administrative situations for my staff and our patients.
Social workers in military settings who desire administrative or leadership positions can expect a variety of selections. Also, it can be expected that for most military social work settings that have senior active duty social work billets, the head of the department will likely be the active duty social worker. The uniform lends to a unique type of credibility to other military agencies and breaks down barriers to care and services. This does not in any way mean that social workers in uniform are valued above civilian social workers; however, the military health care system is a business and being resourceful about available products is the key to a successful organization.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Why did you decide to become a military social worker, and what have been some of the most rewarding experiences you have had during your years working with active and former military members?
[Jaclyn Fischer-Urmey, LCSW] The circumstances surrounding my career choice are nothing short of a miracle. I began my collegiate career as an accounting major. I had hoped to follow in the footsteps of my father, John “Jack” Fischer, former president of Garden State Tile, a New Jersey Tile Company. The company had been created by my paternal grandfather, and I wanted to keep it in my family line, so I started to pursue business while in high school, starting with my first accounting class. It didn’t take long after starting college for me to realize that outside of my love for my father, who had passed away from cancer during my sophomore year of high school, I had no knack or desire for accounting, and drew upon the support and guidance of my mother who suggested that the compassion and kindness in my nature would be well suited in a social work role. Now, my first impression of social workers was negative, as a hospice social worker had attempted to reach out to my older brother and me several hours before my father’s passing, and we told her to leave us alone as she was taking away the precious little time we had left with our father. After thoughtful consideration, I realized that first impressions are not always what they seem, so I took the risk and entered the social work career field. I was well received, especially as a “self-declared social work major,” or someone who wasn’t pressured into it, and received an undergraduate social work GPA of 4.0. I knew that was where I belonged.
During the course of school, I learned about all sorts of populations, but my heart yearned to work with the most challenging I could find: juvenile delinquents. I focused my papers on criminal justice and the history of capital punishment, and selected internships working with juvenile delinquents. Not many people want to work with the troubled kids in jail, but I loved it. Being able to tell a young boy or girl that from this point on, they could never again say that someone wasn’t there for them was very rewarding. I was grateful to be involved in the lives of these kids and young adults when they were in such a tough spot.
One day during the summer in between undergraduate and graduate school, I saw a television program on girls in the Marines. I immediately thought about my work with young adults and how much their lives would change if they joined the military. Also, I saw a lot of similarities in the population with whom I was currently working and the mentality of some of the young girls on the show. All the girls in the Marine television program graduated boot camp, even if they had to re-do it over and over and over. Not one dropped out. Another thought I had was “I can do that.”
Being a person who doesn’t turn away from a challenge, I picked up the phone and called three recruiting offices: the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. The Navy was the only office to return my call and put me in touch with a Navy nurse who shared the process at the time for social workers to enter into military service for the Navy. At the time, I had not yet started graduate school, but four years later, I had not only completed graduate school, but worked for two and a half years in a minimum-security prison for juvenile delinquents and received my independent social work license, or LCSW, the requirement for a direct commission with the Navy as a social worker at that time. I had never forgotten that television show about the Marine girls, and applied to the Medical Service Corps of the US Navy, where uniformed social workers are part of the military health care system that serves the US Marine Corps. Since there are no Marine Corps social workers, I was happy to join the Navy to serve not only them, but anyone who came across my path. Formerly a girl trying to follow in her father’s footsteps, I wound up creating my own path that led me to places I never dreamed of going.
Aside from the obviously exotic experiences that foreign travel afforded to me, my service to men and women in uniform offered countless rewarding professional experiences that each resounded with a personal note as well. In Cuba, my work varied greatly as I served many populations, and to only focus on my work with the military would diminish the full picture so I will share rewarding experiences with military and non-military. I’ll start with “C”, an enlisted Navy member who was being seen in the hospital on base for what appeared to be issues with his nerves, as he would experience tingling and sometimes loss of sensation in his lower legs. This was impacting his fitness for military duty, physical fitness assessments, and could have possibly ended his military career. All the doctors couldn’t find medical cause to his issues, so one of them called me and asked if I could do a mental health assessment to determine if this individual was experiencing symptoms of conversion disorder. Neither the referring provider nor I had ever worked with someone who met the criteria for this diagnosis, in which emotional stressors are demonstrated through physical manifestations affecting movement function.
It’s a relatively uncommon diagnosis and differs from the more common psychosomatic disorder, where internal symptoms (i.e. stomach aches, tension headaches, impotence) arise from psychological stressors. A fascinating diagnosis, conversion disorder is more common in females and someone with a prior existing mental health condition. None of that applied in this case, and shortly after meeting with “C,” he confirmed that he was having marital problems with his wife who was stateside, as he was on an unaccompanied or geographical-bachelor tour in Cuba. He admitted to never thinking that the stress of his relationship could in any way be impacting his physical functioning. After only three insight-developing sessions following his realization, “C” reported a complete remission of any physical manifestations and full range of movement in his legs. He had started speaking to his wife about their marital problems, and both agreed to start marital counseling when he returned home from his assignment. I confirmed the diagnosis with the referring provider, who told me that he’s never heard of anyone with conversion disorder “being cured.”
Also unforgettable were unique experiences I’ve had with the Cuban nationals (those who chose to live permanently on the base and severed their ties with Cuba during the Fidel Castro regime in 1959, when the gates from the base to Cuba were closed) and Cuban migrants (those who were interdicted at sea or encountered in Cuban waters and subsequently provided custody, care, safety, transportation and other needs pending a determination of their immigrant status and transfer). My first encounter with a Cuban migrant, whom I’ll call “R,” was shortly after I arrived. R was referred to me by the base commander for an evaluation to determine if he was appropriate for a recommendation to receive base access following certain restrictions being imposed due to him being found under the influence of alcohol, of which Cuban migrants were not allowed to partake ever while on the base. The most significant impact of restricted base access was that Cuban migrants were not allowed to work in the small, but important, jobs around the base. These jobs helped them feel gainfully employed, gave life purpose during the investigation phase of their temporary residence of several months to possibly years, and allowed them to start over financially when they arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
This potential relocation to a better place for Cuban migrants in danger of being harmed or illegally imprisoned if returned to Cuba was made possible by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a component of the Department of Homeland Security, and the International Organization of Migration. I saw “R” several times during my first summer in Cuba, and determined that he was not at risk of further alcohol consumption while on base and recommended his base access be reinstated. At our final session, he was happy to report that he was granted base access again and offered me a gift: a 2×3 foot black and white painting he framed in plastic. The painting was an illustration of three rows of faceless figures all standing or walking in the same direction, each with a shadow. When I asked “R” about what this painting meant to him, he stated “all everyone has is his own shadow.” It was then that I realized how lonely the plight of Cuban migrants truly is, as they leave behind families, friends, everything in order to have the chance of a better life or to protect those they left behind who were being punished for their sake. I was honored to work with them, and to help raise awareness among other service members on the base regarding how to respect and treat the Cuban migrants with dignity, despite their clear cultural differences.
During my years working with military and their families, I’ve had many encounters with grateful clients, several of whom I’ve had the opportunity to run into over the years at other bases and in different countries. Maintaining positive connections with every client is very important to me because I never know whom I might happen to run into again and in what position, better or worse, they would be in the future. Although I’ve never had the opportunity to work clinically with the same member in two different locations, I have assisted those who are out of their element, or assigned to a difficult position.
For instance, when I was deployed, I had the opportunity to work with a Navy lieutenant who was a former small-boy ship captain and, at the time, was assigned as an administrative officer to an Army colonel. His prior experience of leading hundreds of men and women aboard a deployed sea vessel wasn’t utilized at all. Instead, he was responsible for ordering pastries for the colonel’s meetings and keeping the conference room orderly. He was deflated and was contemplating suicide. This was not an uncommon experience in a deployed setting, as often times, different branches of service are ill-prepared to understand rank structures of other branches and would assign personnel as bodies only, not based upon their experience. Hence, there was tension between different branches in deployed settings. Thankfully, this lieutenant did not meet criteria for psychiatric admission, as his thoughts were fleeting, passive, and he had no intent or plan, and he was open to having me visit him for multiple sessions to discuss how to handle the difference of responsibility and finding meaning so he could feel competent and confident during his 9-month deployment. He made it to the end and went home to be with his newly wedded wife, whom he married prior to deploying. Many times, it was the significant others, such as wives and children, who kept people choosing life.
Suicide prevention is and has been a major priority of the Department of Defense, and each location to which I’ve been assigned, with the exception of my deployment, I have been the suicide prevention program manager. Even at my current position with the Air Force Reserves, I volunteered to take on the role to continue to raise awareness and create opportunities for service members to decrease the stigma of asking for help and receiving services, wherever they are. Even though I have many rewarding experiences of working with military and families, to include seeing relationships restored, substance abusers recover, mental health symptoms under control, acceptance of being separated from service through medical board, administrative separation, or retirement, grievers heal, stressors managed and eliminated, and careers saved, the greatest reward of all is not losing a single life on my watch. In Cuba, where I supervised 5 personnel and had hundreds of client contacts; in Japan, where I supervised hundreds of enlisted personnel and had hundreds of client contacts during my 2.5 years; in Virginia, where I supervised 13 civilians and officers and had hundreds of client contacts; in Afghanistan, where I supervised 1 officer and 2 enlisted personnel and had dozens of client contacts; and in the Air Force Reserves, where I’ve had over 200 contacts with military and family members in the past year: not one of their lives was taken by suicide. The best reward of working with the military is helping save lives. Every one matters.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] On the other hand, what are the most challenging aspects of your job? Was it difficult to transition to military social work from your previous social work background?
[Jaclyn Fischer-Urmey, LCSW] Challenges are life’s way of encouraging me to professionally and personally develop, and during my military and civilian careers, there have been no shortages and growth has been constant. Working with the military takes a certain mindset and understanding of the culture of the military. My first great challenge was transitioning from civilian mindset to a military mindset. In my civilian life, priorities were to work my 9-5 job and make money, keep my home clean, and spend time with family and friends. My military life was different, in that I no longer worked a 9-5 job; I now worked a 24/7 job. My ‘home’ was rented, my family was no longer close by, and I had to make new friends everywhere I went. Going from the civilian mindset of relative stability, control, and safety, to the military mindset of constant transition, little control, and unguaranteed safety took a few years. Understanding this shift helped me know how to meet my military clients where they were, and required less dialogue about understanding their military culture because I was living it. My assessments and evaluations became more efficient and proficient. I had successfully become a part of military culture. From an anthropological standpoint one could view joining the military to better understand and, subsequently help, the military as ethnography, the study of cultures and people from the viewpoint of the subject of study. I frequently recalled this standpoint to assist me in my transition, and it helped me maintain my purpose during times of particular personal challenge.
Being thrust into the position of subject matter expert upon my arrival to each military duty to which I was assigned was something I never got used to. My civilian experience was nothing above a clinical provider, where I supervised no one and had little input into the department’s protocols and procedures. Once I joined the military, my officer rank didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that I was the go-to person for leadership on all matters pertaining to my respective position at the time, whether mental health issues, military-civilian cross-agency networking, social problems, and all personal crises, including substance abuse intoxication and suicidal ideation or attempts. Even though I was initially fearful of failing miserably, I learned my resources and asked lots of questions, which helped me not only meet the needs, but also be viewed as a reliable source of aide for a variety of issues. If I couldn’t directly help, I would find someone that could, never left someone without an answer, and would frequently follow-up to ensure the situation was either resolved or elevated to the appropriate level. Each location to which I was assigned required me to learn new resources, whether military (on base or off base), civilian (off base), or host-nation civilian (if applicable). Networking with other professionals, agencies, departments, military branches, and national and international organizations became key to being successful at each location, and is also a requirement of where I currently work.
Other challenges of military social work, or social work in general, center on people’s misperception about duties of and the rewards I receive from my work. Social workers hear no shortage of oblivious comments that range from “But you don’t make any money”, “You must be stressed out”, and “Social workers take children away.” Many people enter the social work field because of their respect for human dignity and wanting to ‘pay-it-forward’ or help others. Sure, we aren’t always paid what we deserve to be paid, but that’s due to misunderstanding the significance of the work we do. Other times, we are paid very well, such as federal civil service positions or active duty social work billets, which may include special pay of up to six-thousand dollars a year for board certification. There are better paying traditional civilian social work positions at administrative levels than at clinical provider levels, but the ultimate happiness depends on the individual. Social work duty areas include:
- administration, policy and research
- child, family, and school
- international and community development
- medical and health
- mental health and substance abuse
- military and veterans
- palliative and hospice
Many people don’t realize how expansive social work jobs can be. This much diversity can offer a higher level of job satisfaction, as a social work degree can afford someone the opportunity to apply for any position with any of the listed specialties. The beauty of military social work is that all these specialties still apply.
Considering all these specialties can create the opportunity for another challenge in military social work. No two active duty social work billets are identical, and flexibility is required in order to smoothly transition from one or two of the listed specialties to as many as needed in a certain assignment. For instance, my main duties were as mental health provider and substance abuse department head in Cuba, and family advocacy officer in Japan, where I offered no mental health services and completed domestic violence assessments and counseled families. My next assignment was to an administrative billet with a side of clinical work with psychiatry patients. My deployment to Afghanistan was unlike anything before or since, where I administered behavioral health surveys all over the country and gathered research on the morale and welfare of Navy personnel. Flexibility to proficiently learn the skill set required of the location was imperative and took time and patience, as well as a good support network with military social workers and others at the duty location.
Having combat deployment experience lends to a different perspective of life, different than the perspective I had before, which I briefly referenced previously as the civilian and military mindset. Please note that there is a difference between non-combat and combat deployment. Non-combat deployments are in areas designated as safe. Combat deployments are not safe and require most personnel to be armed at all times. Now I can add another mindset shift. Before I deployed, I would learn as much about deployment as I could, so much so that I actually thought I understood re-deployers’ (or personnel who have returned from deployment) experiences. Only during my deployment did I realize how off base my understanding was. Nothing can replace the combat deployment experience. Well-intentioned and brilliant military social workers with no combat deployment experience need to understand and accept this. Military social workers can absolutely assist and help to resolve combat-related trauma in military members through their service, but having the first-hand experience creates a unique bond between military social worker and client.
Although none of my previous clients ever appeared to hold back or withhold their struggle after learning that I had no combat experience, I noticed a significant change in responses after I came back. Clients appeared much more at ease and relaxed around me, almost like we had this unspoken understanding, which we did: we had survived. There is a lot of research available that addresses reintegration, or the return from deployment back home, so I won’t go into much detail here, but I will share that my reintegration was one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever had in my life. Not only did I return from a nine-month combat deployment, but I only had three months in Virginia following my four years of overseas experience. I had not lived in the United States for almost five straight years. I was experiencing reverse culture clash with my home nation while processing the significance of my survival from Afghanistan. Thanks to patience friends and family, I eventually found my new identity and have become personally and professional stronger for it.
My transition from my former civilian position into a military social work position was not necessarily challenging, as my former experience provided much insight into the minds of youth and young adults. The similarities I found between military and incarcerated were that a good number of military members I worked with were around the same ages as the older incarcerated juveniles and therefore were not much further ahead in psycho-social development. Although I was happily surprised by the number of voluntary clients I gained in the military, I was used to working through resistance, which was not as prevalent in the military. Clients who voluntarily seek treatment make work less challenging; the need to get buy-in or help clients commit to therapy is generally not present when working with clients who already want to address their challenges, which allows for more time to focus on working toward their goals. Working with incarcerated juveniles and military personnel is challenging, and equally rewarding.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] How do you recommend students who are interested in military social work prepare for the specific responsibilities and challenges of this profession? As a Professor of Social Work at Monmouth University, have you had the opportunity to mentor and advise students interested in this field?
[Jaclyn Fischer-Urmey, LCSW] Over the course of my eight-year military social work career, I have had the opportunity to meet and speak with countless individuals, young and mature, who are interested in the field of military social work. Some individuals have sought me out, while others have been referred to me through a common friend, family member, or acquaintance. The conversations usually begin with their enthusiasm for helping others, especially military and veterans, and how they have some tie with the military, whether they are prior service or have someone in their family who served. I find that many people who serve as military social workers have a connection before they begin to work in a professional capacity with veterans. Most people don’t wake up one day and think to themselves, I think I want to work with the military. Of course, there are always exceptions, and I’m very grateful for them and those who have a connection, as most people who desire to work with the military have developed a certain affinity and admiration for those whom they serve.
Most military social work positions, such as those in the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Departments of the Army/Navy/Air Force/ Interior, to name a few, require a master’s degree from an accredited institution. That is where I advise most people to begin. For those interested in serving as an active duty social worker, the Navy, Army, and Air Force have opportunities to help more social workers wear the uniform by obtaining their master’s degree and/or offering military social work internships. For those not interested in serving, the required social work master’s internship is an opportunity to start working with military and/or veterans. It is encouraged that students select an internship(s) based on their interest. Depending on the local geographical area of the students, military social work internships may be limited. If that is the case, then taking coursework focused on military and/or taking advantage of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) five free two-hour military social work webinars is a great way to start to learn about military culture, challenges, issues prevalent in military families, and how to support them. These webinars can be found at http://www.naswwebed.org/ and cover:
- Community Resources for the Military and Veteran Population
- Service Members and Veterans in Treatment: Evidence-Based Interventions
- Social Work with Children in Military Families
- Military Cultural Competency
- Military Sexual Trauma: Responding to Active-Duty Service Members and Veterans
Another resource for students is the state-specific NASW Veteran’s Resource Manual for Social Workers, which is a comprehensive listing of all state agencies and national programs for military and family members. Each state’s programs may differ slightly, but all states offer military programs and services for transitioning, housing, home loans, women’s assistance programs, health care, addictions, domestic violence, employment and training, and education and grants to name a few. Several national resources that are available to military and veterans, and are great sources of information for social workers, include:
- Military OneSource
- 24-hour day free help and information, www.militaryonesource.mil,
- Defense Centers of Excellence (DCoE)
- For information on psychological health and traumatic brain injury, www.dcoe.mil,
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
- For information on how social workers help veterans, http://www.socialwork.va.gov/,
- Center for Deployment Psychology
- Trains military and civilian behavioral health professionals to provide high-quality, deployment-related behavioral health services to military personnel and their families, http://deploymentpsych.org/.
There are thousands of programs for military and veterans, some are private with no government funding, whereas others are government funded and administrated. There are Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), United Service Organization (USO), and United We Serve organizations, among many others, that are always eager to have volunteers help local military, veterans, and family members. This is a terrific opportunity for students interested in military social work. In these organizations, they will see first-hand what challenges and needs military, veterans, and family members have, and can gain valuable experience while preparing to enter the military social work field.
Thank you Ms. Fischer-Urmey for your time and insights into military social work.