As the approximately 2.6 million troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 continue to withdraw from war in the Middle East and return home, social work practitioners anticipate a burgeoning need for services to assist veterans with transitioning back to community life.

To provide an opportunity to explore the myriad issues related to the challenges these veterans will face, Saint Leo University's Office of Veteran Student Services will host a Military and Veteran Social Work Conference, June 6-7, 2014 at the school's University Campus in St. Leo, Fla. The theme of the conference is "Veterans in Transition."

Dr. Jose Coll, director of Veteran Student Services and associate professor of social work at Saint Leo, is chair of the event. He says the conference is the only one of its kind in the United States – a conference dedicated solely to military social work – and this is only the second time it has been held.

Below, Dr. Coll answers some questions about the conference, the field of military social work, and the role of social workers in supporting military personnel transitioning to civilian life.

What is military social work?

Dr. Coll: It's the practice of social work to care for service members, veterans, and their families, helping them to cope with the stresses of military life, as well as transition back to civilian life.

Of the approximately 2.6 million troops who have served in the Middle East, nearly 50,000 have physical injuries and more than one-third report psychological concerns. Assisting vets with these types of issues makes military social work a growing field.

Why is the topic important for social workers?

Dr. Coll: As U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to draw down, there is an influx of veterans, many of whom are asking themselves, "What now?" Social workers who understand military culture and values and how to treat military personal are greatly needed to help support their transition back into their families and their communities. Social workers can help them adjust to civilian life, find employment, and navigate the VA system of benefits and resources.

How did the idea for this conference originate?

Dr. Coll: While a lot of literature has been written about military social work, and many social work conferences include sessions about military social work, there was never a conference dedicated to the field until earlier this year. A number of colleagues of mine at other universities, including those with whom I have co-authored a handbook on military social work, organized the first Military and Social Work Conference in April 2013 at the University of Texas.

We want to keep the momentum going and make it an annual event. So I volunteered to organize the second conference here at Saint Leo.

What is the purpose of the conference?

Dr. Coll: The conference is aimed at generating and nurturing ideas to advance the understanding of social work practice with veterans, military personnel and their families. We will also focus on effective teaching and training of social work students in military/veteran social work.

However, while most conferences are very theoretical-based, this one will be very practitioner based. Our presenters will have time to demonstrate their work. Sessions and workshops will be very practical-oriented.

Why is Saint Leo hosting this conference?

Dr. Coll: It's a natural fit. First, we offer an on-ground B.S.W. program and an online Master of Social Work - MSW program, so our faculty and students are keenly interested in remaining on the leading edge of best military social work practices and research.

Even more importantly, Saint Leo has been serving active-duty members of the military, reservists, veterans, and their families for more than 40 years. We have education centers at military installations in seven states and provide online classes to military personnel around the world.

We have developed a trusted relationship with active-military students and veteran students. This conference is just one example of how we remain committed to serving those who have served.

Who would be interested in attending?

Anyone who wants to serve this population – clinicians, social work educators, researchers, students in social work programs, and anyone who works with veterans.

What topics will be covered?

While we're currently in the process of calling for presentation proposals, we intend to address a wide range of topics that affect both veterans and their families: from strategies for helping vets transition to the civilian workplace or succeed in higher education to behavior and health concerns.

What is your experience in military social work?

I joined the Marine Corps when I was 23 and served at Camp Pendleton, Calif, with the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company before fracturing my back and being medically discharged. That injury changed the course of my life. I came back home to Florida and earned my bachelor's in social work at Saint Leo. I went on to earn an M.S.W. and then a doctorate, and now I'm a full-time member of the social work faculty here. I'm the director of our Office of Veteran Student Services, and I've co-authored three books related to military social work and counseling veterans.

Will you be presenting?

Of course! I'm hoping that the latest book that I'm co-authoring on student veterans in higher education will be released by then. I'd like to develop a session around that topic.

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