DALLAS, April 23, 2012 – Wading through the chaotic world of veteran’s affairs is no easy task, but a promising venture aims to revolutionize the online veteran support community. By merging passion with innovation,VeteranCentral.com, is set to achieve what no other entity has accomplished by empowering the soldier in transition with unprecedented tools. The site was founded by Jonathan Lunardi, a talented Internet entrepreneur, and Dr. Paul McDonald, an accomplished scientific consultant for the Department of Defense; it was inspired by the McDonald’s experience with drafting the Army Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention Report. Studying the details of the military’s suicide epidemic allowed him to observe issues that were largely preventable.
“As I became involved in researching the trends for suicide rates and integration issues for veterans, it was clear that the primary factors preventing a successful civilian transition were access to employment opportunities, resources for assistance and positive social support,” says Dr. McDonald, “It became apparetheynt the support system was broken.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs is often a frustrating institution with the quality of care varying greatly from entity to entity. Exasperated by the experience, many veterans next seek help online, but the process of wading through a sea of deceptively similar organization names and jumbled niche websites is a daunting process.
As a Google search of “veteran resources” showcases, the sheer volume of disorganized information is staggering. Many give up.
“When I came back fromIraq, I didn’t want to ask anyone for anything. But eventually, I needed help,” says Paul, a former Airborne Ranger who served three tours in various combat zones, and endured panic attacks and debilitating flashbacks after his first year out of the Army. Paul’s first attempt to access information regarding Post Traumatic Stress nearly jaded him permanently.
“I went to some site and put in my information and my symptoms, and then it asked me for my credit card. They wanted to sell me a self-help kit. They wanted to profit off of my suffering. I gave up for six months after that until thoughts of suicide forced me into the VA, which was almost worse. Something like this can help people in ways I can’t even explain.”
Stories like Paul’s are all too common, as McDonald observed. It is estimated that a veteran ends their own life every 80 minutes. Although suicide is a complicated subject dependent on a myriad of factors, a competent support system gives those struggling a higher likelihood of finding ways to cope.
Veteran Central hopes to change this experience entirely by becoming the mortar between the bricks of veteran resources, particularly employment opportunities.
When Michael Barrett, a Navy veteran, joined the Veteran Central team, he was eager to jump in. After deployment, his transition was rough and he knew firsthand the issues facing veterans seeking post-deployment opportunities in the civilian world. “When I came home, I had this vision of returning to anAmericanawhere a job opportunity would be waiting for me. I was wrong and finding resources was half the problem.”
Barrett is far from alone. Unemployment for Gulf War II veterans aged 18 to 24 jumped from 2010’s 18.4% to 30.4% in October 2011. This is partially due to the complicated process facing those attempting to translate military achievement into civilian language, and partially because reliable, organized information from job postings to resume advice is scattered throughout the Net.
“We constantly hear that there is a lack of trusted resource centralization and the level of quality and direction can vary greatly from one state to another. We are here to help by simply providing a community-driven platform for Vets to recommend services and programs together from not just the web but soon on every mobile device a Vet could have. When we can provide content and resources that are inputted by hundreds of our volunteers and heavy hitting partnership network to every mobile device, then we will see real change happen,” says Jonathan Lunardi.
This centralized database, at its heart a social network rich in emotional support and understanding provided by shared experiences, will exist as it does in most sites: with organized internal and external links, but tailored to the unique needs of the veteran community.
“Veterans move around and though some don’t own computers, most have cell phones. Between mobile applications and geo-tagging technology, we will showcase available resources at the local, state, regional and national level for veterans based on their needs and wants as well as location,” Lunardi explains.
Mobile applications containing “geo-tagging” technology will intuitively lead users to relevant local, regional and national sources. Additionally, instead of an endless back-linking structure with pages leading to an elaborate network of additional pages, the user will experience a human touch when seeking access to information.
“When you visit our site, you’re welcomed via chat by a site greeter that is an employee or an intern, many of which are veterans. We will guide them to the services they need. We feel this is a unique approach which eliminates the confusion relevant, personalized guide, referrals to other sites, etc,” explains Lunardi.
This personalization, they hope, will build a human connection between the veteran and their support structure and enrich the user’s experience by treating the veteran’s time as valuable. Respecting users hesitant to reach out in the first place encourages them to continue seeking connections. This approach also builds trust; something the administrators understand is a paramount concern for the military community, especially to those accessing online resources for the first time.
“I didn’t have much of an email address inIraq. I deployed four times and then came home to a world run by the Internet. It was intimidating at first because I didn’t like the idea of some online company knowing everything about me and doing whatever they want with that information,” says Thomas, a former Marine that served in bothIraqandAfghanistan. “A place where we can access what we need without sacrificing our privacy is the only way to get veterans to jump on to the grid, which is where all of the information exists.”
Other communities have made grand attempts to build a centralized network, but received tepid responses due to lack of privacy. The most notable is Google’s foray into the veteran community, Google for Veterans and Families.
For critics, what appeared at first to be a unique network powered by Google’s infinite resources turned into an olive-colored marketing scheme to lure veterans into joining the Google mega-network in order to track, sell and mine their data. The last thing most veterans enduring symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress need is a paid advertisement for therapy appearing in their email window.
Veteran Central has stated they will avoid this route, not only to build a trustworthy community that puts people before profits, but because they understand the veteran mindset. “We will not sell personal data of our users. We will advertise and partner with relevant organizations, but we will not mine data for the purposes of making a profit. We may use information to create innovative tools to better align users with resources, but we will grow through advertisers, not through selling personal data. Any data that is stored is protected on the most secure network available,” says Lunardi.
Through the creation and growth of this advanced centralized network, unlimited networking and outreach opportunities are a dream-come-true for the charity community. What the government cannot manage, private citizens take on with compassion and patriotic duty.
These non-profit organizations and their citizen volunteers exist all over the country, they raise millions annually and organize hundreds of thousands of people in order to do everything from building homes and host career fairs to granting wishes for those that have served. Their resourcefulness and dedication have become indispensable resources to tens of thousands of veterans and their families, yet millions in transition don’t know they exist.
Veterans Affairs administrators are understandably prohibited from connecting needs-based charity organizations with veterans and without a centralized database within VA facilities, service organizations have few methods of meaningful outreach unless they’ve grown into a mega-charity.
Veteran Central is in a position to become this nucleus of information, potentially connecting these citizens with one another in unprecedented ways. A comprehensive database of charity profiles on the open Internet would help veterans find these organizations that exist to serve them. Uniform mission statements, contact information and a list of services based on location would make a tremendous difference.
In the pipeline is the potential creation of a database with enabled user reviews and rankings, as well. What Trip Advisor or Yelp did for travel or restaurants, Veteran Central could do for veteran service organizations. Once implemented, this database with user-generated, publicly-rated ranking systems would allow veterans to share experiences. Fostering a connection between veteran and the organization also prevents fraud and promotes transparency, accountability and much-needed trust.
In terms of government services, VA facilities are the primary service centers for veterans, but their websites are overwrought with detail and bureaucratic language most veterans find frustrating to translate. Many are unaware that hundreds of smaller satelitte VA offices exist and instead wait for hours at the main facilities. Often, once veterans finally locate a VA for their need, the experience is negative and they never return.
If veterans could submit reviews and grade each facility publicly, other veterans would know prior to visiting which facilities have a reputation for successful management. Just as a restaurant or a hotel or any other service with poor standards would no longer enjoy new customers, VA facilities with poor reputations may finally experience pressure to raise their standards. Additionally, those facilities that tirelessly strive to maintain high standards may finally be acknowledged.
On a larger scale, true reform for the VA is long overdue. If changes are to take place, the expectations for excellence must be removed from the hands of unaccountable legislators and bureaucrats and given to the public. Citizens must become aware of the egregious abuses and shameful neglect taking place in facilities across the nation. Currently, the scandals, negligence and lack of results are not a focus of public attention because the abuses are blips across a news screen, while veterans feel powerless to create change. If a worldwide database existed in which users could rate these facilities and share their tips and feedback for receiving proper care, effective reform could finally begin.
Veteran Central is utilizing the power of the Internet, social media, and technology to change the state of emergency that is veteran’s care. They seek to become a venue for change, to become the nucleus of online resources for the military and veteran community, and ultimately provide the venue to set a standard for how the Internet will serve 20 million American veterans in the 21st century.
As the human cost of a decade of war becomes apparent, veterans and concerned Americans must understand that government resources for veterans are woefully inadequate and disorganized, and in some cases embarrassingly corrupt, and are therefore incapableof providing for our nation’s veterans. In the coming years, citizens, non-profits and veterans must unite and work together if we are to avoid the mistakes of previous generations.
Veteran Central understands this and they deserve our support. At this point, we have had decades to perfect the system of veteran’s care and have failed. For the sake of this next generation of warriors, if organizations like Veteran Central don’t harness the power of the World Wide Web to tackle these shameful societal problems, who will?