War Veterans Gather, Get Help on Facebook

In the years following U.S. troop deployments to Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, thousands of former soldiers, both men and women, have returned home to to continue their civilian lives. Some of these veterans return physically injured or paralyzed, others with psychological issues. As these veterans adjust to the civilian life, Facebook has become a tool for them to apply for federal benefits, return to college, search for work and find support from other veterans.

Searching for “vets” or “veterans” on Facebook yields dozens and dozens of Pages and groups, some official, but many simply begun by veterans or others wanting to use Facebook to express pride and support for the armed forces. These Pages and groups are used to share stories, some have formed tight-knit communities where people seem to interact on a regular basis, whereas others have become go-to resource forums.

Organizations and vets use an array of Facebook tools in these interactions, including Wall posts and comments, Groups, and Pages. Both offer discussion boards and ways of posting photos and videos — Groups are more focused on community topics, while Pages are intended to be public, and oriented around brands, organizations, and well-known people. As a result, Pages tend to help veterans make new and unexpected connections.

“I use Facebook while I’m deployed everyday, all day, through chat, messages, pictures and etc. I was on MySpace, but I rarely check it because I’m addicted to Facebook!” Army Sgt. Jose L. Aranda wrote us from his deployment in Iraq, noting that his family, wife and children, are still in Texas. Like many other active duty soldiers, Aranda uses Facebook as a lifeline to his loved ones while away from home.

Aranda, 27, is a native of McCamey, Texas, a town of about 1,600 in Upton County (population 3,149) about 285 miles east of El Paso. He stumbled upon and became a fan of the Upton County Vets Facebook Page, with 101 fans, photos of local vets and some information about the local courthouse; the Page formed late last year.

“I’m proud to say that I have family and friends in uniform besides me that came from where I grew up. Is it comforting? Yes, indeed!” he wrote us, noting that he’s found old friends there he didn’t even know had joined the armed services.

Veterans organizations have also taken advantage of Facebook to reach out to their membership. One such group with a strong Facebook presence was the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Page, which displays its latest public service announcements. The Wall is closed to its 67,824 fans, but posts generate dozens of comments where people ask each other questions, offer resources and have actual discussions, essentially functioning as a discussion board. The Page hosts many such conversations about everything from benefits to politics to job tips on the Wall, although a discussion thread about payments generated 108 comments. IAVA also uses Causes to raise money for their efforts to improve the lives of veterans from these wars and their families.

“Veterans need each other for support and now they’ve found a place where they can come find that — I’ve heard directly from people who’ve found other veterans that they served with 30 years ago and now they became Facebook friends,” said Joe Chenelly, spokesman for Disabled American Veterans, an organization 1.2 million strong with about 9,900 fans on Facebook.

Chenelly said DAV is incorporating Facebook into everything it does, but has also used MySpace (no longer active), LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter and Buzz. He notes that Facebook has been the most accessible media to their mostly-Vietnam era membership — people who didn’t grow up with the internet, who find the site easiest to use. DAV’s Facebook presence began as a group last spring, changed to a Page last summer, incorporated some unofficial pages and now Chenelly tells us that the “highest levels” of the organization’s leadership is interested in DAV’s Facebook presence.

“Members, fans, are really using it to talk to each other, about their problems and success and it’s been a great thing for camaraderie, doing a good job of bridging the generational gap,” he tells us, referencing the ages of Vietnam versus Iraq/Afghanistan veterans.

The Wall, in particular, has allowed veterans to help each other, ask for help, find fellow soldiers and ultimately create new connections on Facebook, Chenelly tells us. It has also helped the DAV stay connected to its members needs and get the word out about legislation and other issues.

Unofficial Pages, like the Operation Iraqi Freedom Vets with 611 fans, are also used by veterans and their supporters to gather for comfort and to share information. Veterans tell each other the names of their units, where and when they served, while others thank veterans for their service. The official Paralyzed Veterans of America Page with 3,473 fans, is also a place for veterans and their supporters to gather for comfort, but as the organization strives to improve the lives of paralyzed veterans, sharing resources becomes much more important. Here it’s interesting to note that the Share function, wherein fans can post items to their news feed, has been heavily used in cases of petitions for pertinent legislation, something that’s previously been done via email.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a Facebook Page with more than 19,400 fans and the Wall is primarily used to diffuse information about veterans’ benefits, news stories, studies, resources, suicide prevention and other health-related information for veterans. Other federal agencies concerned with veterans also have official Pages, including the Veterans Benefits Administration (3,753 fans), Veterans Health Administration (10,700 fans) and the National Cemetery Administration (706 fans). Although fans cannot post to the Veterans Affairs Wall, comments on status updates and other items are active with discussion amongst fans about resources, politics and experiences.

It’s interesting to note that veterans have begun to use the medium of Facebook as a discussion board, largely moving their conversations onto the Wall via comments, as opposed to limiting themselves to structured discussion threads. Governmental Pages seem to be more imposing than organization or fan Pages, as communication appears to be one-way and more tightly-controlled. But on Pages where vets are given the freedom to engage, they are taking full advantage of Facebook’s features and it appears that very meaningful conversations result.