FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- A new graduate program at the Army Medical Department Center and School is opening doors for aspiring social workers.

Starting in June, Soldiers will have the opportunity to earn their master\'s degree in social work from an accredited university while still carrying out their active-duty military commitment.

"My heart is still pounding," said Col. Yvonne Tucker-Harris, social work consultant to the Army surgeon general, of the program coming to fruition. "This is such a great investment for the Army."

The program was made possible through an Army partnership with Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. As Soldiers complete the graduate course at the AMEDDC&S, they will be awarded a master's degree from FSU. While several universities sent in proposals in response to the Army's solicitation, FSU was selected as the partnering university because it represented the best fit for both the Army and the university.

"I see this as a win-win situation," said Terri Moore Brown, FSU's Social Work Department chair, in town to tour the AMEDDC&S facilities. "Our students will benefit from symposiums and workshops given by the faculty at Fort Sam Houston. We'll be able to expose our students to the wonderful resources here."

The partnership with FSU also opens the door to research collaborations, which can lead to better social work programs throughout the world, said Col. Joseph Pecko, director, Army-Fayetteville State MSW Program and Soldier and Family Support Branch.

"We're looking forward to joint efforts between the students and faculty here and at Fayetteville," Pecko said.

By starting an MSW program, Army leaders hope to boost the number of social workers, which has been depleted in the wake of the Global War on Terrorism.

Up until now, the Army relied on availability of MSW graduates from civilian universities who had gone on to acquire an independent practice license from their state of choice.

"The depletion of social workers has occurred due to the lack of available qualified, competent and committed social workers who have an understanding and desire to serve on active duty," said Dr. Dexter Freeman, assistant director, Army-Fayetteville State MSW Program. "Army social workers must ... be able to accept that their lives will involve multiple deployments in addition to helping Soldiers and Families cope with the stress of war."

The program is considered a force multiplier, Freeman said. "We're trying to increase our number of social workers," he said, adding that the social work force is undermanned by about 26 percent. "The best way to fix the problem is with our own master's of social work program that targets Soldiers who are in the force and qualified to enter the program."

The benefits clearly outweigh the cost, said Pecko. "Not only does the program take care of retention, but by recruiting and creating Army social workers, they'll know exactly what they're getting into and be more likely to stay in for a full career."

The first class of 19 Soldiers will begin in June with a faculty comprising three active-duty and four civil-service instructors, all with their doctorate in social work. The course will include two tracks: a 13-month track for Soldiers with a non-social work bachelor's degree, and an eight-month advanced standing track for students with a degree in social work from an accredited program. Students graduate with an MSW and will take their initial license before they leave Fort Sam Houston.

During the class, students will learn to understand the dynamics of human behavior in the context of their social environment, particularly in relation to the military experience. After graduation, students will be assigned to behavioral health departments throughout the world where they will conduct assessments and provide interventions to individuals and groups under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker.

As social workers in the Army, graduates will provide individual counseling for Soldiers and their Families, whether it's concerning substance abuse, physical or emotional abuse, or just help with daily challenges. In two years, they will have the opportunity to test for their independent practitioner license to become a LCSW.

"Through curriculum development we can give students military-unique training and set them up for success in the military," said Pecko, whose branch develops the post traumatic stress disorder training for the Army. "We will incorporate lessons from Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom into the program curriculum, as well as our experiences with combat-related emotional issues, such as PTSD."

Tucker-Harris said the investment in the Army's own will pay dividends in the future.

"It took a lot to get to this point, but we've had amazing support from Army leadership and we're looking forward to great success."