“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.”