As new vets go online, VA and others follow
DENVER (AP) -- Busy, tech-savvy and often miles from their peers, thousands of new veterans are going online to find camaraderie or get their questions answered - forcing big changes in long-established veterans groups and inspiring entrepreneurs to launch new ones.
"We're going back to school, we have full-time jobs, we have families and kids," said Marco Bongioanni, 33, of New York, who deployed to Iraq twice while on active duty in the Army.
That leaves little time for what he calls "brick-and-mortar" groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.
Bongioanni and many other men and women who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are gravitating to websites open only to them, where they can talk about GI Bill education benefits, job hunting, the personal toll of war and other concerns they share, any time, day or night.
"The fact that it's a virtual world, 24/7, allows us to manage it better," said Bongioanni, now a major in the Army Reserve and attending Army Command and General Staff College in Georgia.
They can also track their health benefits on a Department of Veterans Affairs website and read the VFW magazine on their smartphones, upgrades prompted at least in part by the needs and habits of the 1.4 million veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"You need to go where they are, and that's online," said Jerry Newberry, director of communications for the VFW.
Not all the changes are happening online. The VFW's oldest chapter, Post 1 in Denver, was created in 1899 by First Colorado Volunteers returning from the Philippines in the Spanish-American War. Today, it's reorganizing around the needs of the new veterans.
Its new building, currently being remodeled, won't have a full-time bar. The space will be devoted instead to offices for veterans service groups, said Izzy Abbass, the post commander and a 44-year-old Army veteran of the first Gulf War.
"We're not the traditional VFW post," he said. "Typically the image is of a smoky, dark bar, (a) bunch of guys wearing funny hats sitting around bitching, and they look a lot older than I do."
Abbass said he has deep respect for the previous generation of veterans and is grateful for what they accomplished, on the battlefield and at home. He said older veterans in Post 1 are among the strongest advocates for making changes to engage the new generation.
The VFW traces its origins to local associations of war veterans who lobbied for health care and pensions, and their meeting halls often became neighborhood gathering places.
The VFW is no longer the center of its members' social lives, Abbas acknowledged.
"There's, what, 2,500 bars across Denver? We could hit a different one every night and be fine," he joked.
Post 1 emphasizes activism, working with veterans groups on college campuses, sponsoring outings for families of deployed servicemen and women and coordinating with a group that helps families reconnect after a deployment.
"What we're saying is, look, we love you as a member, but we don't want you to sit on the sidelines, because if we as vets don't step up to help our fellow vets, no one else will," Abbass said.
It was the activism that persuaded Dana Niemela to join Post 1.
"To be quite honest, I thought it was for a different generation of veteran," said Niemela, 36, who served in the Navy from 1997 to 2005, including two years in the Mediterranean. "When I thought of VFW, I thought of World War II, I thought of Vietnam. I frankly didn't think of women, and I think that's a common stereotype," she said.
"When I started meeting the other members and this post in particular, I was really inspired by how actively engaged they were in the veteran community," she said.
For Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who don't have much contact with their peers, a website can be a lifeline, said Jason Hansman, manager of the Community of Veterans website at the not-for-profit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
"We're talking about less than 1 percent of the population that served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The social isolation can be great," said Hansman, 29, who served in Iraq with an Army civil affairs unit.
In November, one veteran's messages on the site grew darker and darker as he struggled with job and relationship problems, and he eventually made a suicide threat in a chat room. Following its policy, Community of Veterans gave the veteran's contact information to the VA's Veterans Crisis Line, and the suicide was averted, Hansman said.
Community of Veterans started in 2008 and has swelled to more than 23,000 members.
TakingPoint.com, a for-profit veterans website, had nearly 16,000 members weeks after going live this year, said David Johnson, the 30-year-old founder and CEO of the website.
"It's kind of like LinkedIn meets Facebook meets Angie's List," Johnson said with a laugh. Its name invokes the vanguard role of the point soldier or pilot at the head of a patrol.
TakingPoint will soon offer software that can analyze individual veterans' service records and tell them what benefits they may qualify for, said Johnson, who served three tours in Iraq with the Army's 10th Special Forces Group.
"The VA in some places has nine-month backlogs," Johnson said. "Calling up the VA (for that information) ... in my opinion is not what a lot of people are doing."
The VA has long been saddled with a reputation for bureaucratic torpor, but its hospitals and benefits offices have leaped online with 150 Facebook pages, 75 Twitter feeds and a combined total of nearly 640,000 friends and followers, said Brandon Friedman, director online communications for the VA.
"In terms of reach, we're doing very well," Friedman said, acknowledging that some of the 640,000 online contacts are duplicates. "In terms of impact, we're not sure yet, and we're still struggling with how you measure that."
The American Legion and VFW have launched Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, but the transition to the web isn't always easy.
When the Legion wanted to start taking membership applications and renewals online, it "literally took an act of Congress," national communications director John Raughter said.
Congress chartered the Legion in 1919 - its purposes include "to cement the ties and comradeship born of service" - and any change in the Legion's constitution, such as new membership procedures, requires congressional action.
The Legion and VFW say their membership numbers show they're connecting with new veterans. The Legion, with 2.4 million members, has grown by 50,000 since 2009, Raughter said.
"We don't want to be so aggressive that we become pests," Raughter said. "Some of the troops, their big message is, `Leave us alone. We're coming home. We're settling in.' That's why we're more interested in advocacy."
The 1.6 million-member VFW said Iraq and Afghanistan veterans make up 15 to 16 percent of its total, the largest single group.
Cameron Cook, a 37-year-old Iraq veteran who is director of veteran student services at the University of Colorado's Denver campus, tells other veterans it's important to get involved.
"I try to tell them, `You know that GI Bill you're on, that Post-9/11 GI Bill you're on? There would be no such thing if it wasn't for these organizations really pushing for us,'" said Cook, a former Marine and a member of VFW Post 1.
While Cook keeps in touch with his military buddies on Facebook, he said email and online networking have limits. He insists on meeting face-to-face with student veterans in his program.
"I think it makes you feel like you're part of something instead of just having a name on a website," he said. "I think face-to-face interaction makes you really feel like you belong a lot more."
Community of Veterans: http://iava.communityofveterans.org
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America: http://iava.org
Veterans of Foreign Wars: http://www.vfw.org
VFW Post 1: http://www.vfwpost1.org
American Legion: http://www.legion.org
Department of Veterans Affairs: http://www.va.gov
VA MyHealtheVet: http://www.myhealth.va.gov
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