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Episode Info:

Dr. Jones talks with UK faculty Dr. Chris Flaherty about military social work, research, and UK’s new Army MSW Program Collaboration

Chris Flaherty Bio:


Military Social Work UK News Items:

April 2019 – Army-UK MSW Program to Graduate First Class


More info about the Army / University of Kentucky Military MSW Program:


Not able to relocate to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, TX? Consider the University of Kentucky’s new Online MSW program: 



Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription and may contain errors. Please check the full audio podcast in context before quoting in print.


Episode 28 – Dr. Jones talks with UK faculty Dr. Chris Flaherty about military social work, research, and UK’s new Army MSW Program Collaboration

Blake [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to the social work Conversations podcast produced by the University of Kentucky College of Social Work. My name is Blake Jones. Here we explore the intersection of social work research practice and education. Our goal is to showcase the amazing people associated with our college and to give our listeners practical tools that they can use to change the world.

Blake [00:00:25] Well I’m joined today by my colleague and friend Dr. Chris Flaherty here at the College of Social Work. Thanks for coming on Chris.

Chris [00:00:31] Thanks for having me appreciate it.

Blake [00:00:32] So I know that we are taping this right after Veterans Day and you’re a veteran and I need to ask you this burning question I’ve been thinking about because I’ve known you for a while and I feel like I can ask you Can you still do 50 push ups? And if so. Can you demonstrate. Now this is a podcast but ha ha…

Chris [00:00:54] Actually I could never do 50 pushups so I’m holding steady on that funny story I mentioned to someone recently that you know the Air Force had. More lenient physical fitness standards and some of the other services but still standards and I was never the biggest jock in the service so I usually got by I stand. But my last test near the end of my career. I actually didn’t make the standard and I was scheduled to retest. And I’d learned at this point after 20 years of service you don’t fight the system. I didn’t want to make an argument that well I’m retiring anyway who cares that that wasn’t going to fly. So what I did was I just said sure please schedule me my retake. But I scheduled it after my retirement date.

Blake [00:01:42] Well that’s one way to get out of it.

Chris [00:01:44] I still owe them that test. Well I’m training up so.

Blake [00:01:48] Good. Good. What’s so good to see you. And you are an associate professor here at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work. You’ve been here since 2005. Before that you were a military social worker for 20 years and you know I’m really excited about talking with you about your work a lot of good things have been happening and are happening in our college lately around military social work or social work with veterans and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the things that are happening with our new Fort Sam Houston students and some other things that are happening in our college.

Chris [00:02:26] Sure we have several things under way now. The Fort Sam Houston program is I think a very exciting new initiative we have. Not that new we actually signed this contract in October of 2016 and this is an interesting collaboration. We’re working with the Army primarily but also across all branches and there is a program where the social workers are trained in Texas at Fort Sam Houston to take social work jobs across the Department of Defense across the service branches and in partnership with us. Now they are applying our curriculum and they’ve enrolled. Currently there are 26 students going through our program at Fort Sam Houston. They also provide instructors and who are vetted through us and receive appointments here at the University of Kentucky. And. They go through the program pretty quickly. They do our 60 hour program in 14 months. So every year or so there are going to be 25 to 40 new clinical social workers with the University of Kentucky degree is going out across the Department of Defense and the various service branches. I think that’s pretty exciting. It’s also allowed us to build some other relationships with them. We have some research initiatives underway now with Fort Sam Houston. We have a grant proposal in the works now and so we’re looking at really using this as as an entree to more and bigger things even. And but in and of itself it’s a great thing because by the time the end of our first contract there will be more than 100 social workers with University of Kentucky degrees out across the Department of Defense. So we’re very excited about that initiative.

Blake [00:04:12] Yeah that’s that is so exciting. And I know that they’ve really been great partners with us so far in this collaboration and it’s seems like the field of Veterans Services is it has just such a great need for clinical social workers specifically. Can you talk a little bit about why that need is there.

Chris [00:04:36] Yes sure. And as a matter of fact the designation for the military social workers clinical social workers that’s the job title. So all folks that go through the program they have a very strong clinical concentration. And. Clinical social workers are they serve in many roles across the service branches and the Department of Defense and do a lot of different things. A lot of similar things that are done and the broader civilian community hold a lot of high positions. But it’s important to realize that all mental health providers just like all service members in the military those in uniform. Their primary mission is to serve during warfare and combat operations. So that’s for a social worker in the military. Their first job is to serve in a deployed environment and serve soldiers and airmen sailors Marines who are hard in need of services just as medical providers would do in those settings. And then when not in a deployed setting those social workers do a variety of things. I know in my 20 year career in the Air Force I worked in child welfare. They have a very robust child welfare system the military called family advocacy and social workers are the really kind of own that program is largely staffed by social workers. General mental health outpatient mental health inpatient mental health substance abuse treatment, Interpersonal Violence Intervention. Social we have social workers and in penal institutions I actually worked a couple of years in a Navy brig. And so even though you know folks may think that social work in the military is a kind of a narrow thing now it’s a very broad thing. In other relief from children. And then when you include social workers working in the V.A. particularly, gerontology you know it’s pretty much the whole gamut especially in the clinical arm of social work.

Blake [00:06:42] Yeah there seems to be so many opportunities. So as a young social worker what drew you to military social work when you were in the military before you became a social worker?

Chris [00:06:55] Yes. But I was always in the social service system in the military. So I joined the Air Force without a college degree in 1985 and kind of through happenstance ended up working as a mental health technician. And for seven years and I worked alongside social workers psychologists psychiatrists in an outpatient mental health setting. And so I kind of learned what military Behavioral Health was about. And I saw what my colleagues did and what my superiors did. And the work and their work. And so I started chipping away at a bachelor’s of social work degree. During my assignment I was stationed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. And finished my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree and at that point I still wasn’t sure I was going to do career military. But I decided kind of on a whim to apply for commission as a social work officer. And I was selected and it was really an offer that was too good to refuse. And so once I accepted that that kind of put me over the 11 year mark and 20 years is the minimum for retirement and the active military so I said Yeah I think I’m going to go ahead and see this through. And it was worked out to be a really great decision. I had a really terrific experience from that point.

Blake [00:08:17] So you were able to work and lost lots of different kinds of settings. When you were when you were being a social worker in the military.

Chris [00:08:25] Yes absolutely.

Blake [00:08:26] Yeah. I want to talk with you about Cultural Competence. We talk a lot about that in social work and with different populations. And you know one of my areas of clinical interest is working with police officers first responders. And I would think that veterans are somewhat similar in terms in terms of the way that you have to work with them and approach mental health intervention. And I wonder if you could talk about you know students who are listening to this who might be interested in working in the military. What’s a good social worker need to be in that situation.

Chris [00:09:10] That’s a really good question because as you mentioned in social work we place a big emphasis on cultural competence and really being able to understand where our clients are coming from from their social position and their culture. And even though no one can be an expert in all cultures but we need to be sensitive to and open to learning about the cultural values and that our clients are coming from. The military is a unique culture. And. It’s actually you can say multiple cultures because there are various cultures across service branches those in special operations special forces somewhat different cultures say than what I was and working in medical setting. But there are some some kind of global similarities across the culture. You know all of the branches have core values. And they framed them somewhat differently how their phrase. But generally they come down to service before self is probably the primary core value integrity honor moral courage those are all values that are ingrained across all of the service branches from day one from basic training onward. And and those values are embraced not only by the service members but also by the family members that it’s accepted that their military life entails a certain amount of sacrifice and a certain amount of putting your own needs behind that of the mission and so that that’s a really important cultural aspect because. Folks in military know that and they and they it’s just a given that the mission comes first. You do what’s needed. You don’t whine about it and you just press on. And that’s a strength. But at certain times it can become a liability because sometimes what comes along with that is a certain amount of stoicism and reluctance to admit any weakness are reluctant reluctance to reach out for help. And so those working social workers working with military members and military families need to be sensitive to that. They’re a group that’s very proud of their strength and their ability to handle their own situations their home their own problems tend to be you know really. Embrace courage and bravery in the face of adversity. And so sometimes you know it takes some time to get folks to. Accept that maybe they need some help from outside that they can’t handle everything themselves. And there’s still a significant stigma at play where service members will oftentimes put off seeking help. And you know until things have gotten pretty bad so. Acknowledging that also appreciating the sacrifice that comes with military life whether it’s in active warfare time or relative peace time like the Cold War era military families sacrifice a lot they are very mobile population. They are rooted on a regular basis. Kids have to leave one school and all of their friends and go make new friends every couple or three years typically and having an appreciation of that understanding that. I think carries a lot of weight when working with military members and veterans. You don’t have to necessarily be a veteran yourself but just being attuned to what life is like for military members and military families I think goes a long way to earning trust and respect from those folks.

Blake [00:13:00] I’m glad you mentioned that because I was going to ask you Is it possible to be a military social worker without being a veteran. Or is that a liability?

Chris [00:13:10] You know it may entail some additional challenges in establishing a rapport initially but it’s not necessarily a barrier. As a matter of fact within the Department of Defense and across the service branches there are a lot of civilian social workers employed so we have social workers in uniform of course as I was. But we also have a lot of civilian social workers as Civil Service government employees and that work on instillations even overseas installations and some of those folks are veterans and some aren’t but they they get to know what it’s like to be in the military. They work. They’re immersed in that culture as well. So there maybe even times where those those social workers have an advantage that maybe some service members may feel more comfortable opening up to someone who isn’t wearing a high rank on their shoulder.

Blake [00:14:10] Right. Because rank is so important in military and policing and you know that idea of speaking to someone that chain of command comes into play right.

Chris [00:14:22] Absolutely right.

Blake [00:14:24] I know one of the contemporary things that we’re talking about is moral injury. I think I have that right. Is that the term moral injury.

Chris [00:14:35] Yes.

Blake [00:14:35] Talk about what that is and how therapists or social workers can be aware of that phenomenon in soldiers.

Chris [00:14:45] And I won’t portray myself as an expert in this particular area. It’s kind of an emerging area of practice and looking at moral injury we do have some folks here some faculty members and Ph.D. students who are really delving this on a deeper level but moral injury as I understand it is has some similarities to post-traumatic stress. And you know we know that post-traumatic stress is really a psychological reaction to experiencing extreme trauma. And that activates the brain in a certain way that it’s difficult for the brain to kind of readjust to deactivate and come down from there are some similarities with moral injury and they can coincide with it can coincide with post-traumatic stress. But moral injury really has to do as I understand it with this comes from situation where folks their sense of what’s right and moral has been violated either by observing others doing things that are beyond my moral comprehension or acceptable limits of my morality or maybe even finding myself being put into a situation where I feel like I was forced to violate my own moral standards. And then because of that the guilt that comes with it not just the trauma but the guilt and the shame that comes from perceiving that I did not live up to my own moral code.

Blake [00:16:22] That seems like a really broad area and as in good social work fashion it brings in the you know emotional psychological moral ethical dimensions of war.

Chris [00:16:37] Yes.

Blake [00:16:40] So it seems like there’s so many areas for research and practice within the military. We know that wars are not going away. I hope we’re all working for some level of peace but we we always need soldiers in defense. And so as we’re moving into this area in our college what are some some research projects or other things that are are going on that we’re excited about.

Chris [00:17:11] Well there’s actually a lot going on right now and the college there’s a lot of momentum around research and and knowledge development in the area of treating veterans service members. I know Dr. Cerel has done some really interesting work on looking at the needs and experiences of survivors of suicide. We know that suicide is a major problem nationally but especially in the military and veteran population suicide rates in that population are above the norm have been for some time. And you know there’s there’s been a lot of focus nationally around trying to figure out predictors of risk and and interventions to reduce risk of suicide. But Dr. Cerel and her work is looking at another aspect looking at those that are affected by suicide known as suicide survivors and that can be anyone who was close to the person then of course that could be spouses, children, parents but also friends, clergy, other people that were close to this person. And what’s coming from that research is this this reality that suicide suicide affects many more people than was originally thought has been thought over the years and in profound ways including increasing suicide risk for survivors of suicide. So there is a current proposal underway to delve more deeply into this area. We’re working with the Fort Sam Houston faculty on this as well as with the Kentucky Army National Guard to gain more perspective and also the perspective of providers who work with families who have experienced suicide with members with folks that have lost someone to suicide. We’re going to be talking with chaplains other others mental health providers to get a sense of what their skills are what their comfort level is what. What their experiences working with folks that experienced this. That’s one of the more exciting things under way we also have some faculty here Dr. Karen Lawrence and Dr. Donna Schuman who are working. More specifically with PTSD and getting into the details of how PTSD affects the brain affects the body and. And toward you know what the ultimate goal of looking for more effective interventions for treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

Blake [00:19:44] That’s good. That’s a lot.

Chris [00:19:45] That’s a lot.

Blake [00:19:45] A lot happening and we have a certificate also.

Chris [00:19:48] Yes. So we have a what’s called the Military behavioral health certificates that’s an interdisciplinary certificate not limited to just social work students. And this is a a an immersion into learning about military culture. Specific issues that affect military service members and military families gaining skills and competence. Working with these folks and it’s geared really primarily for folks who aren’t necessarily going to go into military social work to work say. Put on the uniform or work on a military installation are NASA not even necessarily work for the VA. But what we know is that there are a lot of veterans who receive services in the civilian community. And so even if someone’s not looking to work for the Veterans Administration or the Department of Defense they’re out here working in rural Kentucky say in an hour and a community mental health center they’re going to encounter a lot of veterans and a lot of veteran families. So we would like to as much as possible to get as many of many folks that are going out there into the community to be culturally competent as well and to have some skills and understanding around and competency around working with military and veteran population. So that’s a 12 hour program that leads to a certificate and in addition to the master’s in social work for social work students. But again it’s open to students from other disciplines family sciences of course rehab counseling psychology. So really any any of the helping professions.

Blake [00:21:24] Yeah that’s great. What are you. You have not talked much about your own research but you you are quite a published researcher and if you could talk a little bit about what you are interested in in terms of your own research what are you working on.

Chris [00:21:44] Well I’m working with Dr. Cerel and the suicide survivor research. I’m excited about that. I think that has potential for growth. I’m also interested in working in the experiences of military families in particular. I think that military family research doesn’t get enough attention. I think that you know the military families live in a unique culture and it’s very different growing up as a child in military families than it is to grow up in a civilian family. So I think the stresses. We don’t know a lot about the long term consequences of all the upheaval that comes with working living and military families. So that’s an area of particular interest to me. Did some work looking at child abuse in military families and predictors of that and recurrence of abuse and how we can intervene. I would like to continue work in that arena but also really is more of a strength based approach to looking at military families because there are also children and family members from military families often do very well and often have certain strengths you know. So really looking at this from a resilience standpoint and not a pathology standpoint is very interesting to me and I think our new partnerships with the National Guard and with the Army at Fort Sam Houston is going to allow us to get access to populations and data to really explore these experiences of military families.

Blake [00:23:17] It’s interesting that you mentioned the resilience of military families and military kids and I’ve thought about that too. I work with a few of them in my therapy practice and one of the things I’ve noticed about them is that they are able to make friends easily because they’ve had to. Yes. Right. And they’re put in these situations of you know we’re going to move you to South Dakota for a couple of years and they just kind of have to go or they have to go to new schools and make new friends and that’s hard. That’s really hard for a kid to do that year after year and move around. But I find that they are they are really resilient and just kind of. A lot of them can easily adapt to new environments which is a real strength.

Chris [00:24:04] Exactly. So you know we talk a lot about the stresses of military life. But there are also some kind of unique positive experiences. I think being in a military family growing up as a military brat you know. And you know because of that that. You kind of have to learn to adapt to accept change and move on. To leave friends behind make new friends to live in cultures that are very different from your own. You know a lot of these kids spend time overseas. And where many of the people around them don’t speak the same language. Even so. But that can be a very enriching experience too – learning broadly about the world how people live in other cultures how people live in other countries. Again learning what it’s like to learning about loss that you know the loss of friendships and the making of new friendships. I know that there is some interesting research going on. I know that out of the College of Education here we’re looking at social media and that’s a major change. And how so. You know when my kids were you know military brats and moving from place to place when they said goodbye to their friends. I mean other than the occasional phone call it was goodbye. But now with Facebook and all the other social media you know maybe there’s these they can maintain these relationships even from a distance. And so that may be a very positive potentially positive use of social media for the folks. Even if they have to move to a new place new school make new friends. They can still keep some connection with their other friends. So I think that’s an emerging area.

Blake [00:25:54] That’s really good. So Chris one of the questions I often ask on this podcast is about self care and how important that is for social workers. I want to ask you a two pronged question. One is what do you do for self care in terms of just managing your own stress and and you know being a faculty member doing all of this research. And how do you do that. And then secondly how do what advice do you have to military social workers about handling their own level of stress and maybe that isolation that happens with them by being on base or just being surrounded by a certain population. So let’s start with you. I know you like music.

Chris [00:26:41] I do.

Blake [00:26:42] Bluegrass music specifically.

Chris [00:26:42] Can’t play it but I love to listen.

Blake [00:26:43] I love that about you. What else do you do for self care?

Chris [00:26:46] You know I’ve – interesting that you mentioned that. My most stressful job was in the military was immediately after I received my commission as an Air Force social work officer and I was moved to Rapid City South Dakota Ellsworth Air Force Base and it was a beautiful place up in the Black Hills area of South Dakota. But we had you know very harsh winters a fairly isolated place and I was in charge of the Family Advocacy Program. So all of the child abuse cases all the spouse abuse cases landed on my desk and I had was very demanding job very long hours. And that’s where I discovered fly fishing in the Black Hills was the perfect place for that. And sometimes after a long day after ten hours you know in the summer you get very long days up there sometimes it wouldn’t get dark until 11:30 at night. So I would come in and just throw my gear in my car drive down the road to my favorite trout stream and fish for a while just to just to get away from things and it was you know a hobby like fly fishing to me it’s it’s engaging enough that you have to pay attention to what you’re doing so it’s not like that you just sit on a rock because if I just sit on a rock and start thinking about the office and what I need to do tomorrow that sort of thing. So to me it seems like those hobbies that engage you in some way we have to actually pay attention what you’re doing but not to not stress in a stressful way. That’s worked well for me. And. Now I think the second prong of your question to me also is just anytime I’m out in nature I find that very rejuvenating. But the other one was I think you’d ask about unique aspects of challenges to self care maybe for military population military folks. You know I thought about that over the years and you know the military we talked about the specific challenges that go with it. The fact that you pack up and move your family packs up and moves every few years and sometimes depending on the kind of job you’re in maybe every couple of years. And we think about that as a stress but then also I think that it can also be looked at as a positive in some ways. I think that folks that are career military that seem to do the best as far as their own mental health and happiness of the folks that have more of an adventurous spirit. And you know so OK we’re going to pack up we’re going to moved overseas. We’re going to move to Japan and lived there for three years. You know. Wow what a great experience. What a great experience. Potential experience for myself my children to learn about a different culture to see new places to really get immersed in in ways that you can’t do on a two week vacation. And to really look at those positive aspects you know that yes my kids are having to say goodbye to their friends. But look how much broader their worldview and perspective is going to be when they come back from a place like that. So I think that really just like in lots of aspects in life the more that we can focus on those positives. You know while acknowledging the challenges I think that goes a long way. I also think that. For me in my 20 years in the military it was always important to me to have connections and friends off base outside the military in the community. I’ve had many good friends that were civilians. So you know I had really good friends that were active military folks. But it was it was good to have that balance and to have a life in the community as well. I often chose to live off the base versus on the base. And some of my assignments. So that. And more of a well-rounded community of friends that that worked for me and I think that’s worked for a lot of folks.

Blake [00:30:33] Well Chris I want to thank you for coming on today. This has been so interesting and this is such a rich area and you’re too humble to say this I’m going to say this for you that I know that you were really instrumental in bringing the Fort Sam Houston collaboration to UK and I know that you worked really hard on that and I just want to thank you for that because I’m excited for our college. I’m excited for the you know all of the social workers the clinical social workers that are going to be trained here to go out into the military. So thank you for doing that.

Chris [00:31:08] Well thanks for having me. And yes it’s very exciting work and it’s still kind of in its infancy. We anticipate that this is going to grow into even bigger and better things. And what I would like to see is. When I finally sail into the sunset here is that people think University of Kentucky social work. They think military social work and vice versa. And so we’re making steps in that direction.

Blake [00:31:33] Good. And good luck on your push ups too.

Chris [00:31:35] OK. I can still do three or four.

Blake [00:31:38] Ha ha…Thanks Chris.

Chris [00:31:38] Thank you.

Blake [00:31:42] You’ve been listening to the social work conversations podcast. Thanks for joining us. And now let’s move this conversation into action.

Announcer [00:31:53] This production is made possible by the support of the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, interim Dean Ann Vail and all the faculty and staff who support researching contemporary social problems and prepare students for the social work profession. Hosted by Dr. Blake Jones produced by Jason Johnston with thanks to our Webmaster Jonathan Hagee. Music by Billy McLaughlin. To find out more about the UK college of social work and this podcast visit


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