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Serving Those Who Served Us

Rayford CropRevisedFlagTonia Rayford admits that when she entered USC’s MSW program in August 2012 after 30 years in the Air Force, the change wasn’t easy. “It’s a big transition, but it’s a good one,” she said, noting that her transition to civilian life came just at the right time. “I love coming to campus. I love jeans and flip flops. I love that people call me by my first name.”

But it is a different world—both within academia and beyond—especially for veterans like Rayford who have served multiple combat tours. The growing needs of military and veteran populations are part of what prompted Rayford to apply for the College of Social Work’s new military certificate program. “We need to be ready to support our troops when they come home,” Rayford said, citing the numerous factors that affect the health and well-being of service members and their families, from losing friends to facing divorce. “Even if they don’t have scars you can see, they have scars.”

It was these hidden wounds that inspired Dr. Nancy Brown to develop the Graduate Certificate for Social Work with Military Members, Veterans, and Military Families, which admitted its first group of students last spring. Dr. Brown’s son was in the Army, and when he came back from Iraq, his childhood friend, who had also returned from deployment, suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eventually committed suicide.

“We owe veterans who have risked so much for us. People survive, they have injuries, and they have to come to terms with their experiences,” Dr. Brown said. “Our military men and women and their families have proven themselves to be resilient through the challenges of multiple deployments. The majority of people are doing very well despite adversity and difficulty. So it isn’t just about fixing what’s broken but also maximizing what’s working.”

The certificate program requires 18 credit hours and focuses on helping students understand the military and military culture, recognize injuries associated with military service and combat exposure, and develop skills and strategies for working with service members, veterans, and their families.

“I think people are really hungry for this information because it’s a population they need to know something about,” Dr. Brown said. As the mother of a child who was deployed, Dr. Brown is also concerned about equipping those who work with the families of the deployed. “My goal is to train people everywhere,” she said, noting the online, non-degree program that the College of Social Work offers for community members called “Military 101.”

From students’ field placements with veterans’ groups to government-funded research conducted by faculty, the College of Social Work is working from all angles to improve the lives of service men and women and their families. As Dr. Brown notes, it’s a three-pronged approach—educating social work students, educating the community, and conducting research.

In terms of research, Dr. Nikki R. Wooten, LISW-CP who teaches two of the military certificate program’s four core courses, was recently awarded a five-year grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Behavioral Health Care in Army Warrior Transition Units (NIDA 1K01DA037412), to study military service and deployment-related factors associated with mental health and substance abuse problems. The research will also examine service members’ utilization of behavioral health services and health disparities among racial/ethnic minorities and women in the military.

“This will be the first study to focus on deployed Army service members assigned to Warrior Transition Units—a high-risk, understudied group that includes the most severely injured Army service members,” said Dr. Wooten, who is currently a Lieutenant Colonel in the District of Columbia Army National Guard with over 25 years of military service. Utilizing Department of Defense Military Health System data, Dr. Wooten hopes to gain a better understanding of behavioral health problems among service members who return from war and the risk or protective factors associated with post-deployment health.

As for Rayford, her social work degree and military certificate will give her the evidence-based practices and theories she needs to better serve military members and veterans. Not only did she get hands-on experience through an internship at the Ralph A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, but she’s also recently been hired by the Veterans Administration to work on a PTSD research team when she graduates.

“Because of the courses I’ve taken, I now have a clinical perspective of what service personnel go through,” she said. “When I say ‘I support our troops,’ it will come from a deeper level of commitment where I can advocate for them from an evidenced-based, social work perspective.”

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