MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. - The month of March is a time to celebrate the field of social work while also raising awareness about this helping profession. The theme for Social Work Month 2020, “Social Workers: Generations Strong,” is a reminder of the positive impact social work has had on our Army throughout the years.
Social workers have been helping Soldiers since World War I, serving as American Red Cross employees. In 1945, they starting commissioning as officers. Throughout all that time, the compassionate, diligent, and life-affirming work of social workers from succeeding generations has continued to help our Army thrive.
Social work is a profession oriented towards addressing human needs. This is done by providing care, advocating, and connecting individuals to resources. Social workers are able to enhance the wellbeing of the population they serve through counseling, crisis interventions, and a multitude of programs. At its core, social work aims to help those in need.
At Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., a combination of uniformed and civilian social workers devote every day to helping our Service Members and their families. These professionals of various ages, with differing levels of experience and diverse backgrounds, all share a common desire to be of service to others.
Three members of this group currently serving the JBLM population are Maj. Salvatore Bitondo, Amy St. Luce and Capt. Don Rooks. While their desire to serve ultimately led them to military social work, the experiences they’ve had and paths they’ve taken were distinctly different.
“I was studying genetics when I took a social work class as an elective, really enjoyed it, and the rest is history,” stated MAJ Bitondo, the chief of the Embedded Behavioral Health Clinic for 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team.
Bitondo has been a social worker for 27 years, serving in the Army for the past 8. Much of his experience has been teaching new social workers, having served as the director of the Social Work Internship Program at Ft. Hood, Texas, and previously teaching undergraduate and graduate level courses. Bitondo shed light on the unique opportunity the Army offers the field with clinicians both in and out of uniform with differing backgrounds and specialties.
“I think it’s great to be surrounded by different perspectives," Bitondo said, reflecting on his experiences working with different generations of social workers. "It’s good we’re all around more than one philosophy or one school of thought.”
St. Luce, the chief of Rainier Embedded Behavioral Health Clinic, said that she became a social worker 20 years ago after serving in the Peace Corps in education.
St. Luce found that working with the military was the first time she felt completely satisfied in a job and wasn’t left wondering what was next. She has helped Rainier Clinic become an integral part of the training experience for the next generation of military social workers. Her team works closely with the JBLM SWIP to make sure new Army clinicians are knowledgeable and well-equipped to serve the military.
“Rainier does it well," St. Luce said. "I truly enjoy helping shape the future of military social work and producing good social workers.”
St. Luce shared there are advantages when social workers have different life experiences.
“We should always be open to learning from everybody ... young or old," she said, "Working with colleagues of different backgrounds and expertise helps because they may think on levels we don’t always.”
Sharing that sentiment, but from the opposite end of the social work experience spectrum, is intern Rooks.
“I feel more centered in social work, having been able to work with folks who’ve been in longer," he said. "My graduate program was largely policy-focused, so working with seasoned social workers has made what I learned more applicable to helping people at the individual level.”
Rooks is just one of the interns in the program to benefit from working with more experienced clinicians. He is getting ready to graduate with two years of social work experience, but he has been around the military since he was a child.
He grew up with a father who was an infantry officer and later a psychologist. Rooks credits him for laying the foundation for his interest in the military and in behavioral health. Rooks once served in the Navy as a recruiting officer, but was drawn to Army social work because of the extensive training program and multitude of opportunities it affords its behavioral health officers.
“The combined culture, structure, appreciation of and for the country, and my interest in behavioral health, made the Army a great fit," Rooks explained.
Bitondo, St. Luce and Rooks have all witnessed the field grow and change over the years. They agree that, depending on the era, location, and particular area of social work one is working in, the focus of practice can be vastly different.
Bitondo said that social work in South Florida, where he completed graduate school and later worked for many years, had a heavy focus on homelessness. St. Luce described how her graduate program and subsequent jobs in Chicago concentrated on issues dealing with poverty, violence and race relations. Rooks said his program in New York City had an emphasis on policy-level social work, specifically programs affecting veterans.
The field of military social work continues to shift and adapt to changes. The military is a reflection of our society at large with some similar experiences as civilians. The varied backgrounds of Bitondo, St. Luce, and Rooks, and the expertise they have in different realms of social work, have helped them navigate the challenges that our military continues to face.
“It can be hard for Soldiers to explain what they’re going through," elucidated Rooks. "Sometimes they share things they’ve never told anyone, and I enjoy getting to work with them to help them feel better. We help the Army by serving the Soldiers and their families, and we are a large part of our Army’s readiness.”
Bitondo echoed those sentiments, and said a quote that has stuck with him through the years helps remind him why social work in the Army is so vital.
“We may not change the world, but someone we help will change the world.”
With such varied backgrounds in genetics, the Peace Corps and as a Navy recruiter, the life experiences of these three clinicians confirm that it is not despite such differences, but rather because of them that military social work is thriving and successful.
Military social work exemplifies the epitome of what it means to be “Social Workers: Generations Strong.”
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