Over the past decade, the field of psychology has placed a great emphasis on the importance of practicing from a culturally competent framework. Although much of the emphasis on cultural competency has focused on racial and ethnic minorities, the field of psychology has recognized the importance of being inclusive of all unique and diverse groups (e.g., gay and lesbian, different religions). However, one group, the military, has received little attention in the psychological literature, with regard to issues of culture and values as related to practice.
I believe the military is a unique cultural entity for which clinicians should have a general working knowledge. I think the American Psychological Association’s ethical code of conduct supports my position:
Where scientific or professional knowledge in the discipline of psychology establishes that an understanding of factors associated with age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, or socioeconomic status is essential for effective implementation of their services or research, psychologists have or obtain the training, experience, consultation, or supervision necessary to ensure the competence of their services, or they make appropriate referrals, except as provided in Standard 2.02, Providing Services in Emergencies. (American Psychological Association, 2002a, §2.01b)
The ability to understand and appreciate the military culture and to tailor clinical practices based on that understanding and appreciation is imperative for clinicians working with service members. Members of the military share a unique language, as well as common norms of behavior, customs, and traditions.
Clinicians treating service members need training, education, and supervision that will make them “culturally competent.” One aspect of being culturally competent when working with military members is to understand why some join.
Reasons for Joining the Military
Although there is an incredible diversity in today’s military, service members share many traits and characteristics that lead them down the path of service. Below are a few of the more common ones.
The term “patriotism” has taken on several connotations since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has been used to describe those who are supportive of a particular political party or viewpoint (“unpatriotic” has been used to describe those who dissent from a particular party or viewpoint), as well as to demean classes of people—both those who openly show signs of strong nationalism and those who believe that strong displays of nationalism detract from the need to have rational debates on important political issues.
These issues are of little relevance to the service member while he or she is serving, and likely had no relevance prior to joining. For the service member, patriotism is more in line with Merriam-Webster’s definition, “love for or devotion to one’s country.” In short, for service members, patriotism is more than just a word or a springboard to contentious political debate. It is a core and prominent value directly tied to their identity that greatly influences their lives and career decisions.
A Sense of Belonging
Whether it comes from social, religious, occupational, or other types of groups, humans need to feel a sense of acceptance and belonging. For many people, joining the military is a way to develop a sense of belonging and connection with others. The military is a massive “club” that lets in many but retains only those who are able to function within its prescribed rules and boundaries.
It promotes comradery, cohesion, unity, and reliance on others, all of which are conducive to giving one a sense of connectedness. Moreover, the military promotes in its members self-esteem and self-worth, and it provides them protection.
Parental and family variables are strong influences on children’s career choices. In her book, “Counseling Military Families” (2008), Hall writes about the strong influence of the “family tradition” regarding the choice to join and remain in the military. She writes of a personal conversation with an airman that elucidates the significance of the tradition:
So I asked what drew him into the military. He said he grew up as a military brat because his dad was career enlisted military. He was born in Japan, had lived in Spain, Panama, and England. . . . He said being in the military was just a “family thing,” and even though his father had actually discouraged him from carrying on the military tradition, it was all he knew. (p. 35)
Hall also makes the point that the fear of living and working in the civilian world is a strong motivating factor for some military children to serve. Just as it is for adults, adjusting to civilian life can be difficult for children who are raised within the military culture. The unknown and untested civilian world can be anxiety provoking.
This situation is not unlike an immigrant who longs for his native country as he finds the customs, traditions, and norms of his new culture strange, confusing, and frightening.
Looking for a Better Life
In general, service members do not come from families of privilege or high financial means. Most come from the working or lower middle class scattered throughout small towns around the country. The military is an attractive opportunity for those who feel they have limited choices.
At the time of this writing, the lowest ranking enlisted member can start out earning more than $45,000 a year once base pay, housing and subsistence allowances, and tax advantages are factored into the equation. The salary for a new college graduate entering as an officer is nearly $60,000. Other benefits include free comprehensive medical and dental care, tax-free purchases on base or post, and various other discounts and incentives in the civilian world.
These figures are quite impressive if you compare them against the average compensation of a high-school-educated 18-year-old and a college-educated 22-year-old in the civilian world.
Understanding why many individuals join the military can improve a clinician’s level of cultural competency, which in turn, should lead to increased outcomes. Yes, diversity runs deep in today’s military, but there are many shared traits and characteristics within this microcosm of society.
American Psychological Association. (2002a). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American Psychologist, 57(12), 1060–1073.
Hall, L. (2008). Counseling military families: What mental health professionals need to know. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis.
**This article was adapted from Dr. Moore’s latest book “Treating PTSD in Military Personnel: A Clinical Handbook-Second Edition” published by Guilford Press.