There are several options for Physical Therapist or Occupational Therapists to serve in the military. Therapists can choose active duty, and help military men and women after being injured during combat, or civilian duty and provide care to wounded soldiers and veterans in military treatment facilities. Many veterans and those on active military duty struggle without some sort of therapy, and a Physical Therapist or Occupational Therapist can help patients recover from both their physical and psychological injuries.
Where the roles of Military Physical Therapists and Military Occupational Therapists differ from their civilian counterparts is in how they address injury. Unlike civilian Physical Therapists and Occupational Therapists, Military Therapists do not practice independently but work interdependently with orthopedic surgeons, emergency care physicians and mental health counselors. This is to ensure an optimal outcome for military service members, with the goal of returning to active service or re-acclimating to civilian life.
To further distinguish the roles of Military Therapists from each other, Military Physical Therapists primarily deal with the immediate fallout from wounds, and the subsequent physical recovery. According to the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association, “96.1% of first-time evaluations were returned to duty with either no or temporary limited restriction,” in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We focus on targeted exercise, looking at bio-mechanical factors that might be contributing to the problem and then correcting them through stretching and exercise,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Rendeiro, Chief of the Physical Therapy services for the clinic at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center.
Military Occupational Therapists, on the other hand, have more long term goals in treating and assessing the mental and psychological state of both active soldiers and veterans, depending on their station. Active Military Occupational Therapists are often responsible for treating traumatic brain injury (TBI) and poly-trauma (for example: an amputation, TBI, and post-traumatic stress disorder).
Civilian Physical Therapists and Occupational Therapists tend to have a more long-term role in helping veterans recover as opposed to sustaining the physical and mental wellness of soldier at battlefield regulations. Physical Therapists and Occupational Therapists in this capacity tend to work at the VA, in medical treatment facilities or in research, and are actively attempting to expand Tricare; the insurance program offered to 4 million active-duty military and retirees, which does not currently cover post-battlefield cognitive rehabilitation therapy.
While Therapists working for the military serve a vital role in maintaining soldiers’ health and wellness both during and after their tour of duty, there are also plenty of benefits to working for the military in this capacity. All Therapists are inducted as officers, and receive a wide array of travel assignments and opportunities that are not typically available. They also qualify for a sliding pay grade and see a steady increase in monthly allowances as service time increases. Therapists are required to commit to the military for a minimum of three years, and the challenging setting of the battlefield often requires therapists to be innovative and solve problems while gaining hands-on clinical experience.
This hands-on clinical experience from the military can translate well into a variety of therapy settings after returning to civilian life, including Skilled Nursing Facilities, home-care and outpatient rehabilitation. Military trained therapists are considered highly valuable candidates in Allied Health due to the volume and scope of injuries they have treated in a decisive and dynamic manner, and will easily find themselves able to navigate other types of treatment and recovery.