DC Huskies

Husky profile: Michael Kilmer, ’01, MSW ’04

MICHAEL KILMER, ’01, B.A., Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, ’04, MSW, Clinical and Contextual Practice

Caring for the millions of U.S. veterans who suffer from injury, illness and trauma is not simply about having enough resources and staff. At the Veterans Health Administration, a new generation of leaders is reforming case management and applying prevention science to improve outcomes for veterans and their families.

Michael Kilmer, ’01, ’04, is at the forefront of this transformation. As the chief advisor on care management and social work services at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Kilmer oversees 11,000 social workers and six innovative programs that take integrated, patient-focused care to a new level. Key elements include team-based transition management for returning veterans, support and training for family caregivers, designated patient advocates, and domestic violence screening, prevention and intervention.

A native of Grays Harbor County, Washington, Kilmer enrolled in the UW School of Social Work in 2002 after 15 years in the U.S. Coast Guard and completing his bachelor’s degree from UW Tacoma’s Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences program. His departure from the military was not voluntary—he was one of 14,000 service members forced out under the Department of Defense’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on sexual orientation between 1994 and 2010.

After his discharge, Kilmer volunteered with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, lobbying legislators, raising funds and counseling other veterans facing expulsion because of their sexual orientation. He earned his MSW in clinical and contextual social work methods in 2004.

Kilmer put his training in cross-disciplinary social work to immediate use at the VA San Diego Healthcare System, where he created a nationally recognized care management program for post-9/11 combat veterans. He then oversaw multidisciplinary care management for the VA across southern California and southern Nevada, before being promoted to VA headquarters in Washington, D.C., in 2013.

One of the newest programs under Kilmer’s leadership is the Domestic Violence/Intimate Partner Violence Assistance Program. Research shows that post-traumatic stress disorder is associated with higher rates of intimate partner violence, and that about one in three female veterans has experienced domestic violence at some point in her life.

The program, which shifts from a culture of “shaming and blaming” to trauma-informed care, focuses on educating primary care providers and community members about intimate partner violence. Eventually, 150 VA facilities will have intimate partner violence coordinators on staff. “Since veterans return to their communities after their tours of duty, it’s critical to have community resources and advocates available to make this effort succeed,” says Kilmer.

Another rapidly growing program led by Kilmer, the VA Caregiver Support Program, offers assistance to family members who are caring for injured or disabled veterans. The support includes self-care classes, respite care, and financial assistance to about 20,000 families, with 450 more signing up each month.

Like many of his fellow MSW graduates, Kilmer was attuned to those in need from a young age. In grade school, he worked with kids with special needs; in high school, he volunteered at a teen crisis line. He credits the Coast Guard with satisfying his calling to help others while building his self-confidence.

Kilmer now looks forward to finding ways for the VA and the School of Social Work to collaborate. “My goal is to strengthen relationships with proven sources of research and innovation, such as the University of Washington,” says Kilmer. “What I learned as a student, and what I bring to my day-to-day work with veterans, is that service must be rooted in science to create change that matters.”

In recognition of his transformative work, Kilmer was the first recipient of the UW School of Social Work’s Early Career Achievement Award in 2014.


A previous version of this story appeared in the 2015 UW School of Social Work annual report.