Digital initiative to expand help for military veterans

Above: IAVA-organized ‘Storm the Hill’ day in Washington, D.C. Credit: IAVA on Flickr.

The numbers in the scandal over the delays in health care and other benefits incurred by the Department of Veterans Affairs were shocking. As of June 2013, returning veterans trying to get help for medical issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, had to wait an average of 336 days, according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the largest nonprofit organization for post-9/11 veterans and their families. The wait was almost triple the VA’s stated goal of 125 days. By March 2013, the so-called “backlog,” the number of veterans waiting to access benefits, had reached 611,000. But numbers never tell the whole story.

To help put names and faces to the real suffering brought about by these delays, in 2012 Knight Foundation committed $250,000 to IAVA to support the development of The Wait We Carry.

The site is an interactive visualization tool of the wait times many veterans have been enduring but also a means to learn about each veteran affected and connect with them. (Each entry has “Learn more about this veteran” and  “I want to connect with this vet about his experience” links.)

To follow up to and expand The Wait We Carry, Knight Foundation is providing $500,000 to support IAVA’s development of a digital ecosystem that “includes new data and information projects, a mobile app for members and interactive guides to benefits. [IAVA] also plans to increase its work with journalists to gather and release data on veterans’ issues.”

This new grant will allow the organization “to create a new digital experience for veterans,” said Jacob Worrell, director of user experience at IAVA who leads the development, implementation, monitoring, reporting and evaluation of IAVA’s member-focused digital products. There are 2.4 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and IAVA has “close to 300,000 members, including veterans and civilian supporters,” he said.

“What [The Wait We Carry] did was take an issue that was very technical and used terminology that the average person didn’t really understand — most people didn’t know what a VA backlog meant — and put specific faces and stories behind it,” said Worrell. “That helped people connect at a human level. We used technology and data, but we presented it in such a way that it conveyed the human cost that the government policies and the lack of execution from the VA bureaucracy had had. ”

The objective is to produce a social media site where veteran leaders can connect, thus “enabling them through an online platform to actually plan and execute their own ground events.” But the site will also be a place where veterans who have problems such as PTSD or other mental health issues “can connect in a safe space—more private than Facebook—and discuss those complex issues with peers, in a non-clinical setting.”

Former Army sergeant Jason Ayala, who served two tours in Iraq, 2005-2006 and then again in 2008, attests to the impact of The Wait We Carry at a personal level.

“It humanized me. I wasn’t a statistic. I wasn’t that cliché that most people have in mind when they think of a veteran who needs disability help — the guy on the street corner with a sign,” he says from his home in California. “And when you humanize a veteran you see someone who has served his country, who’s honorable, who has psychological or physical disabilities but wants to be a contributing member of society. It puts a face to that person and you realize that he can be my son, he can be my brother, he can be my friend.”

And in turn, the attention has brought results.

After submitting a claim in December 2011 for his lower back, neck, headaches and PTSD, and waiting for a year and nine months, Ayala saw an online story about IAVA, contacted the organization and shared his story on The Wait We Carry. This, in turn, led to press coverage (including an interview on NPR in 2013), and “lo and behold, it just took a month and half from the time I was in touch with the media to the time my claim was approved and my appointments scheduled.”

While the full impact of tools such as The Wait We Carry might be sometimes hard to quantify, for Worrell, a former sergeant in the Army’s 172nd Stryker Brigade, deployed to Iraq from August 2005 to December 2006, the true gauge was “the response we got from Congress and everyday people.”

“Our biggest measure is: Does the VA backlog go down? And it has. It has gone down over 40 percent since we launched the tool [a year ago] — and it continues to go down. We would like to think we had something to do with that.”

In a hearing held by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Monday, Allison Hickey, undersecretary for benefits at the VA, has been widely quoted noting that there has been “tremendous success” in reducing the disability claims backlog.  The backlog now is about 275,000 — a 55 percent decrease from the peak numbers 16 months ago.

The new project will also expand The Wait We Carry to help make it into an open-source visualization tool that other groups can use. Worrell said the new digital community project is in testing and IAVA expects to release it around Veterans’ Day.

Fernando González is a Miami-based writer.