Research That Matters (January 17 - 20, 2008)

Regency Ballroom Wings (Omni Shoreham)

Ethical Challenges of Military Social Workers Deployed to the War

Catherine A. Simmons, PhD, University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Joan R. Rycraft, PhD, University of Texas at Arlington.

Background: There are very few professions with mandates as different as those of social work and the military. However, despite the obvious differences between these professions, a large number of MSW trained social workers do work that matters as members of the armed forces. Recently, many of these men and women have deployed to the war in Iraq where they juggle social work ethical principles with the demands of the combat experience. Faced with austere and often dangerous conditions, these social workers operate in an environment governed by rules that are significantly more rigid than those encountered in the civilian sector. From the unique paradigm in which military social workers practice their craft, this study addresses three research questions.

(1) What do military social workers find rewarding and uncomfortable about practicing in a combat zone? (2) What ethical challenges do military social workers face while deployed? (3) How do/did they deal with these challenges?

Method: Using snowball sampling techniques, 24 US military social workers who were deployed during various stages of the war in Iraq were surveyed using an open-ended measurement instrument. Topics addressed include (a) the job they performed while deployed, (b) rewarding and uncomfortable aspects of the deployment, (c) ethical challenges they experienced while deployed, and (d) how they handeled these ethical challenges. Answers were then categorized using concept mapping approach with 13 coders. The resulting concept maps were then organized into a phenomenological presentation that describes the experience of practicing social work in a combat zone.

Results: Four primary themes emerge from this work; (1) positive aspects of service including teamwork, population served, and pride in serving the country, (2) negative aspects of military social work including bureaucracy, professional role conflict, uncomfortable military policies, and balancing family and military obligations, (3) ethical concerns including confidentiality/privacy, conflicts with commanders, relationships/boundaries, balancing the needs of the client with the needs of the military, and diagnosis/treatment concerns and (4) mechanisms participants used to deal with these ethical concerns including prioritizing the assessment, focusing on the presenting problem and putting the mission first.

Conclusions/Implications: The relevance of this study is twofold. First, ethical concerns are never entirely unique to a particular person or a given situation. Therefore, understanding how military social workers address their wartime ethical challenges can benefit all social workers thereby improving the integrity of the entire profession. Second, even though over 300 social workers serve in the US active duty force and over 600 civilian social workers provide direct support to US military members and their families (Daley, 1999, 2003) very little is published about the experiences this group. For this reason, this work adds an important missing piece to the current body of knowledge about the social work profession.