Department of Veterans Affairs reaching out to vets via blogs and social media

Friedman is revamping the VA social media presence.
Friedman is revamping the VA social media presence. (Courtesy Of Brandon Friedman - Courtesy Of Brandon Friedman)
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By Amanda Erickson
Friday, April 9, 2010

A little before 8 every morning, Brandon Friedman steps into his cubicle, turns on his computer and tries to single-handedly revolutionize the way the Department of Veterans Affairs talks to vets.

Friedman, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, arrived at VA eight months ago with a mandate: to reach veterans using new media -- and little else. It's no easy mission at a department known for its communication failures and cumbersome bureaucracy.

Friedman has helped overhaul the department's Web site, created a dozen Facebook pages and launched a Twitter account. The goal, he said, is to improve communication between veterans and the department.

Friedman, who served in the 101st Airborne, knows how hard life can be for veterans. "When I got out of the Army, I was done," he said. "I didn't want to deal with anything anymore."

He spent his first months at home drinking and traveling. But after a bout of appendicitis left him bedridden, he began blogging about his experiences. That led to a book deal ("The War I Always Wanted" was published in 2007) and eventually a position with VetVoice, an online forum for progressive veterans.

"I got addicted to blogging," he said. "I began getting a real handle on the power of communicating online."

In 2009, VA Assistant Secretary Tammy Duckworth tapped Friedman to revamp the department's social media presence. His work appears to be gaining some traction. The department's Facebook page has gained about 20,000 fans in five months.

That's not surprising to Steven Livingston, a communications professor at George Washington University who has worked extensively with U.S. troops in the Middle East. "Even the veterans are kids these days," he said. "They're tied into new media. The VA can tap into that familiarity."

Veterans are active online, said a member of Swords to Plowshares, a veteran support organization that helps former service members in the San Francisco area find housing, benefits and employment.

Amy Fairweather, the group's policy director, said she often receives requests for help from families that come across her organization's Facebook page or Web site.

"The Internet is their connection to home," she said. "That follows through when they return."

About 60 percent of the service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are younger than 30, according to the Defense Department.

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