WASHINGTON — Veterans of past wars have long found companionship over beer and conversation at their local veterans hall. But many of those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan seek that companionship elsewhere — online.
Hoping to tap into that virtual community, a public service campaign starting Tuesday — Veterans Day — encourages Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to log onto a new social networking site called CommunityofVeterans.org. The site was developed by the nonprofit organizations Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the Ad Council.
"You don't need bricks and mortar to have an American Legion post," said John Raughter, spokesman for the Indianapolis-based American Legion.
The veterans organization isn't the only one expanding in cyberspace. The Veterans of Foreign Wars, for example, is starting its own social networking site this week at MyVetwork.com. Also, the American Legion has created several cyber posts where veterans can communicate online no matter their ZIP code.
The online efforts reflect a change in not only how today's young adults connect with each other, but also how many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans live in communities without peers who relate to their experience.
The American Legion and VFW have seen a decline in membership since a peak after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as World War II veterans and Korean War veterans have died. The American Legion currently has 2.6 million members, down from 3.1 million. VFW has 1.6 million, down from 2.2 million.
Some younger veterans are too busy to join the groups or don't identify with the older veterans, despite outreach efforts.
But that doesn't mean the younger veterans couldn't use help. The advertising associated with the Community of Veterans site taps into the loneliness some veterans feel and encourages them to communicate with others.
"Ninety-nine percent of Americans have seen combat on TV. One percent have seen combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. We know where you're coming from," says one ad.
The Iraq-Afghanistan support group is based in New York and has more than 125,000 members and civilian supporters. The Ad Council solicits volunteers in communications industries to promote social causes.
Organizers of the site say it's unique because the veterans must be from the current wars and verify their military service to participate, so a veteran can feel comfortable talking about mental health and other personal issues. It also includes government and private resources where veterans can obtain information about mental health issues and rate programs or services they've used.
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"It allows us to reach the service members on a medium that they are very accustomed to," said Todd Bowers, director of government affairs for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who spent two tours in Iraq with the Marine Reserves. Bowers said troops in the war zone frequently were online.
Lisette Mondello, an assistant secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department, said in a statement that the VA supports the effort because it offers an innovative way to reach veterans.
About 1.7 million veterans have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan and as many as one-fifth are estimated to have problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety.
The military has taken strides to reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health help. Army Maj. Gen. David Blackledge, a two-star Army Reserve general, is one of the highest ranking officers who has been talking openly about getting mental health help, The Associated Press recently reported.
Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Kansas City, Mo.-based VFW, which has 7,900 posts, said about 70,000 of its members are veterans from the current wars. As the young veterans age, he said, the hope is that more will join and become active. But, he said, there is a realization that the way young veterans communicate today is different.
"Being able to blog, to go online, and to have instant information to ask questions and get an instant answer is a tremendous asset," Davis said. "If the younger generation, if that's what they want, absolutely we're going to provide."
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