Why Marines Make Exceptional Social Workers

Profiling some of our best mental warfare warfighters.

Posted Nov 15, 2019

This past week, for about the 10th time in recent months, I observed how Marine Corps Veterans are uniquely suited to becoming exceptional social workers.

For some people, this may not be an obvious connection because they hold archetypes of Marines as one dimensional, aggressive warfighters. Yet within my network of Marines, some of the very best social workers I know have retired out of the Marine Corps — and many of them are doing incredible work to advance the field.

When I zoom out, here are some of the reasons I see to explain why Marines are particularly well suited to social work careers after the military.

1. First, they are protectors by nature at their core. A good Marine protects those around him or her. In battle, this might convert to a willingness to lay down his or her life for his brothers and sisters in arms. In the context of a social work profession, this results in an instinct — and iron will — to protect those that cannot protect themselves. This might include children that are being abused or people that are vulnerable and can’t (for a time) stand up for themselves.

2. Marines have a particularly fierce tenacity. They don’t back down from a fight. They persist in the face of obstacles. As a psychologist who works on the front lines of the mental warfare that many in our society are facing, a huge part of my job is simply being patient, being persistent in the face of obstacles, delays, and challenges, like people that don’t return calls, who flake out or fail to follow through, and as a result, who don’t move on taking care of those around them (in the way I think they should at least).

3. Marines adapt and overcome. There is a concept in the Marine Corps that is jokingly referred to as “marine-genuity.” The general idea is that if you give a couple of Marines a roll of duct tape, and a little time, they can pretty much accomplish anything that needs to happen. Far from being “militant robots” with a limited mindset, Marines are flexible thinkers. This is part of their values and it is a strong emphasis in the way that they are trained. They are trained to adapt and overcome within highly chaotic, kinetic situations. This translates very well to a profession where there are lots of moving parts, people to track, and the need to stay fixed on a goal for the benefit of those you serve.

To illustrate, I’d like to highlight a few of the many Marines who are exceptional social workers in my network.

Mike Ergo is a social worker who graduated from Berkeley and is the director of a Northern California-based Vet Center. He is a sponsored triathlete who runs Ironman Triathlons on behalf of his fallen brother Marines. He is in China right now after just finishing an Ironman competition. His mission to facilitate post-traumatic growth after moral injury and grief is leading the field in the right direction. He is also the host of the popular podcast series, Transitions from War. Want to hear more of Mike's story? Here’s an article from People magazine you can read.

Brian Vargas is a Marine who just graduated from Berkeley with a Master’s degree in social work. He is running the student veterans resource center at a community college with a large veteran population. He is innovating — as he always does — by leading interesting conversations between veterans and civilian students on the campus where he works. Brian is also a long-time collaborator of mine and the co-founder of the Warrior Box Project. Listen to this episode on NPR where Brian shares the story of how he came through a time of crisis by deploying an idea that has helped save the lives of countless Marines and other service members over the past few years.

Eric Strom served in the Marine Corps before he enlisted in the National Guard. He is currently a Captain in the National Guard and is about to deploy as the behavioral health officer for his unit. Eric is the host of the thoughtful podcast series, “Conversations from the Couch” and he and I have teamed up with Mike Ergo to do a well-received podcast (linked here) explaining why we need to take the shame out of the suicide conversation.

Tess Barragan Banko is a leader in the field of care for military veterans and their families. She is the Executive Director of the UCLA/VA Veteran Family Wellness Center where she leads efforts to support military families. Some of the services offered in her center include individual, couples, early childhood, military sexual trauma, and combat veteran adaptations, plus group sessions and special workshops and events. Tess was just profiled with a wonderful interview by “We Are the Mighty” which is linked here.

Earlier this week, I had a chance to have lunch and catch up with JT Bikul, a former Recon Marine who is now a social worker at a local Northern California Vet Center where I live. There was a Vietnam-era Veteran at the same table with us as we were having lunch this week. JT had to go a little early, and after he left, this Vietnam Veteran sang his praises, talking about how helpful JT’s Vet Center groups have been. Take a look at this article profiling JT. The title says it all: 'That's how Marines work': Technical difficulties won't stop volunteers from cleaning vets' graves.

Marines have not only been some of my best friends — they have been some of the most exceptional partners I’ve had on the front lines of this mental warfare we are facing. There are countless others who do not have a formal degree who have nonetheless been as proficient in the fox hole of this mental warfare as they have in the fox hole of physical battles when they are deployed. A recent example is my friend David Bachmann from the 2/7 Marines who came to speak with me at the reunion of another group of Marines.

David and I drew from our trust and mutual respect to share hope, new perspectives, and critical insights for these Marines. The day after the reunion we got this note from the organizer (transcribed word for word):

“At least 4 Marines have personally shared with me that this weekend ‘saved their lives … Thank you and David both for your time and your perseverance in making the change! Your tenacity is a gift to all who come in contact with you!”

Doing this together was life-giving for both of us and I look forward to continually partnering with good Marines like David and so many others, including those highlighted above.

I was moved to write this article because this week I have been reminded over and over that those who serve us in the military are irreplaceable civic assets. On Monday, I published a book called Beyond the Military: A Leader’s Handbook for Warrior Reintegration that is grounded in the understanding that the deeper purpose of those who serve can help them create a meaningful life after the military. As we reflect on Veterans Day, I am reminded over and over that Veterans are not one dimensional. They are complex, multi-faceted people — like all of us — and they have so much to offer, including bringing unique value to some lines of work.

Let’s celebrate our veterans not just on Veterans Day but on an ongoing basis by recognizing and respecting the value that they offer to all of us, beyond the military.

Shauna Springer, Ph.D., is co-author of Beyond the Military: A Leader’s Handbook for Warrior Reintegration.