Military counselors are vital mental healthcare workers who help veterans and active-duty servicepeople overcome various difficulties. They also provide mental health counseling services to the families of military service personnel. After all, the military offers specific sorts of challenges to its members and thus they require counselors with specific expertise in serving the military family.
If you are headed to school to earn a degree in counseling, psychology, or even an MEd, you can consider work as a military counselor. This page was created to help you learn more about this specialization so that you can make your best career decisions. Continue reading to learn more about how to become a military counselor.
What is a Military Counselor?
A military counselor is a psychology professional who creates a practice around helping veterans, active-duty service members, and military families. They may meet their clients in one-on-one sessions, in couples, or in group settings. This career path begins with a master's degree and then state licensure. Those that become licensed have the option to conduct psychotherapy with any sort of population they choose, though their military focus will certainly provide a strong client base.
Steps to Become a Certified Military Counselor:
Counseling is a career path that is not for everyone. This field demands a lot from its practitioners in terms of emotional and psychological energy. Thus, the first step in becoming a military counselor is to decide that this is the field for you. In fact, helping veterans or military personnel should be a driving passion. Often this passion comes from personal experience in the military or counseling, if not both.
It's also vital to determine if you are cut out for the profession. Counselors need to be compassionate and empathetic, but they must also have firm boundaries. On a daily basis, you are likely to hear very personal and often disturbing stories that have caused your clients great pain. Counselors need to have a way to both connect with and not internalize these stories.
The second step towards becoming a military counselor is to earn a bachelor’s degree. This degree can be in a number of fields, but you should probably stick with psychology. Later, when you apply for a master's degree, you'll need to show that you've passed certain prerequisites, which your Bachelor of Science in Psychology should cover.
If your program offers courses in counseling, you should certainly take them. They will help you prepare for what's to come while also helping you gain confidence that you're on the right career path. It may also help to study sociology and perhaps political science, as well. That's because each of those fields can perhaps give you insight into the larger military apparatus.
You can also enhance your studies with internships at your local Veterans Administration or volunteering with veteran’s groups. If you volunteer at the VA, you might not even work alongside counselors, but you'll still gain exposure to the veterans. This experience will help you identify traits that are commonly found in that population.
Once you have your bachelor's degree in psychology, you'll need a CACREP-accredited degree in counseling. Here you have a few options. You can complete a master's degree in psychology, a Master of Social Work (MSW), or a Master of Education (Med) with a concentration in clinical mental health counseling. Most of these programs will require that you complete one or more internships in the Veterans Administration. Online programs strongly suggest internships, which are perhaps the best way to solidify your foundation for later practice.
These days, there are many accelerated master's degree programs that allow undergraduate students to enroll and then complete both their bachelor’s and master's degrees in five years. This can be a boon to non-traditional students who are interested in expediting their education and traditional students who would like to save a little money while accelerating their education. You can also find master's degree programs online. Online graduate degree programs allow you to study at schools which may otherwise be out of reach.
The fourth step towards becoming a military counselor involves licensure. Your choice of graduate degree program will help with this. That is, your program should be fully accredited by a national agency, such as CACREP. Accreditation is important because licensure boards may not acknowledge a non-accredited degree. You will also want to make sure you meet all of your board's requirements.
One key licensing requirement is that of supervised hours. Every counselor needs to complete a set number of supervised hours in counseling. Your supervisor should be a licensed professional who can affirm that you have conducted psychotherapy in a professional manner. Very often, this supervised period can last up to a year of full-time work. However, make sure that you consult your state board's licensing requirements.
The last major hurdle towards becoming a licensed military counselor is to take your state's preferred licensing examination. Since each state is different and subject to changing their required examination, it's vital that you consult their website for details. If you are in a graduate degree program in the same state where you intend to practice as a psychotherapist, your academic advisers should have the relevant licensing information.
What Does a Military Counselor Do?
On a day-to-day basis, a military counselor works in a quiet office that has been designed to instill a sense of calm and safety. There they sit and counsel servicepeople and their families regarding their psychological issues including addiction, PTSD, depression, and anxiety, among other issues. Their office may be housed in a Veterans Administration hospital, but many military counselors work in private practice. Those who report to the VA will have set hours and will likely have little choice in which clients they see, or how many are on their books.
A military counselor in private practice, on the other hand, will have their own office that either stands alone inside an office building or even in the counselor's own home. Others might join a practice with other counselors whereby they share rent and facilities in a larger office space. This approach allows the members to have more robust administrative support and the ability to advertise as a collective practice that can serve multiple populations.
All military counselors will need to make sure they see their clients as scheduled while also making time for billing, notes, and marketing. Those who work in a hospital may have daily quotas to meet but they will also not be burdened with billing issues nor any of the overhead concerns that plague those in private practice.
Military Counselor Skills to Acquire
Military counselors need a large toolkit of skills to do their jobs effectively. One of the key skills that a counselor needs is listening skills. While this may sound obvious, not everyone is as skilled at listening as they might think. Counselors are trained to listen with care so that they are able to detect problems or clues that help unravel problems.
Counselors should also be adept at communicating with their clients. When a counselor is able to convey hard truths or uncomfortable insights without offending or further harming their client, then they can be said to have excellent communication skills. Counselors should also be able to set healthy boundaries with their clients.
Military counselors need to know how to engage with their clients without becoming overwhelmed by their pain. This may be difficult at first, but once you've worked with a number of clients and have helped them work through their depression, anxiety, or PTSD, you will attain more objectivity and clinical distance.
Counselors also need to have strong analytical skills. Each client needs to be assessed in the most objective manner and given a treatment plan to follow. Here, professional counselors can rely on their academic background to determine the best course of action for the client.
Since counseling of this sort is state regulated, there aren't many alternative routes to staring a career. Every military counselor needs to complete a bachelor's degree and then a master's degree. All licensed counselors should also satisfy their licensing boards with ample supervised hours and passing scores on the state mandated exam.
However, every counselor comes to the profession in their own way. Some decide in high school that this is the field for them. Perhaps their family was involved in the military in some way and they would like to work with active servicepeople or veterans. It could also be that they had a friend or neighbor who suffered military-related mental illness, such as PTSD. Others may decide while in college that they want to apply their psychology degree to the field of counseling psychology and psychotherapy.
Many others come to the counseling profession after working with a therapist of their own. Once they overcome their traumas or psychological pains, they are eager to help others. Many PTSD sufferers who overcome the trauma of combat turn around to help their fellow servicemen as military counselors.
Military Counselor Career & Salary
Where Might You Work?
Military counselors can work in a variety of environments. Many counselors who specialize in psychological issues that relate to military service work for the Veterans Administration. If you want to work with active-duty military personnel, you might work in a military treatment facility, which are located on military bases. Private practice is also an option for licensed military counselors.
In this option, you can diversify your client base to include non-military clients. For instance, your work with veterans and active military personnel might expose you to issues related to addiction, grief, family issues, or depression. Your private practice can then diversify into the non-military population and focus on those matters more exclusively.
Military counselors might also work in prisons or homeless shelters where all too many veterans wind up. Often, veterans with PTSD or other troubles find it very difficult to adjust to civilian life and thus end up in dire straits. Your work with these veteran sub-groups will be appreciated as too many veterans fall to these circumstances.
The outlook for military counselors and psychologists in general is healthy. Their field is growing, and they are reported to have good salaries. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that, in 2019, psychologists earned a median salary of over $80,000. The pay for those with a doctoral degree may be even higher. Psychologists who work in the VA or other governmental agencies are sure to make more money with a doctoral counseling degree. Their field is also projected to increase by 3% in the years between 2019 and 2029.
Note that professionals with other sorts of credentials can enter this field as well. For instance, licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), pastoral counselors, and substance abuse counselors can work under the banner of a military counselor. Note that the BLS only tracks licensed counselors as psychologists and doesn't address the others. However, if you have arrived at your job as a military counselor via some other route, but are licensed to conduct psychotherapy in your state, then you can assume a salary and professional outlook along the lines of a psychologist.
There is no shortage of job possibilities for those who seek to work with military veterans or active-duty personnel. You can work in a VA hospital, on military bases, in homeless shelters, prisons, or in private practice. You might even decide to take a break from psychotherapy and train your skills to other forms of counseling, or even entirely different populations.
Here are some options.
- Military Child Youth Therapist:
There are positions located on naval bases and others but your employer will likely be a for-profit health services provider. Counselors in this position will be asked to work with active-duty personnel and their families.
- Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor:
In this position, you may work directly for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and you will be working with disabled veterans who need help acclimating to civilian society. While this is not a job that requires a psychotherapist, but you might need to refer clients to someone for more intensive one-on-on sessions that address deeper issues.
- Correctional Counselor:
This job is for those who wish to work with inmates who are having difficult times. The potential to help people change is great for those who take this position. This will often be a state job and require a bachelor’s degree as a minimum, but they would probably prefer a master's degree.
- Pastoral Counselor:
These counselors needn't necessarily be licensed, but they do need to have credentials especially if they are going to work outside of a church. You may find a position as a home-health counselor who also provides hospice care or work with military families at a local base.
- Substance Abuse Counselor:
Depending on your state's requirements, you may be able to attain credentials with only an associate degree. Your credentials and salary then increase along with your degrees. Salaries and statuses are often closely tied to one's licensing level.
Find Military Counselor Jobs Near You
Advancing from Here
Military counselors can advance their careers in a number of ways. Those who work in the VA or other health systems might move up into administrative positions. It's also possible to return to school and complete a doctoral degree, which provides higher salaries and more status. Counselors can also start a private practice which they can grow to include other counselors. They could work as consultants in the legal field and help veterans form a legal defense unless they are offering expert testimony for a prosecutor. Since psychology informs all parts of human existence, there are many opportunities to learn and grow as a counselor.
Psychology & Counseling Career Paths