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February 26 2014

December 25 2013

From Bethlehem to D.C.: Christmas Around the World

On Christmas Eve, two American astronauts spent the day in space, working to fix the cooling system on the International Space Station

Down here on Earth, though, the celebrations are mostly confined to land and sea. From soldiers sharing a special meal in Afghanistan to Santa waterskiing in Maryland, people and cultures around the world observe Christmas Day with their own sets of traditions. Some of these traditions are centuries old, like gathering in the little town of Bethlehem; others were brought on by circumstance this year, like families in Tacloban, Philippines, finding Christmas joy amid the post-Typhoon Haiyan destruction. Read more...

More about Pics, Photos, Santa, Christmas, and Afghanistan

August 03 2012

Want to Buy Some Twitter Cookies? Just Head to Kabul

Ever wondered what it would be like to taste Twitter? Now's your chance: You just have to go to Kabul, Afghanistan.

Mustafa Kazemi, a Kabul-based journalist who tweets under the handle @combatjourno (and writes guest content for Mashable), found these Twitter biscuits at a shop in the city.

"Real lemon creme biscuits," advertises the box. Kazemi didn't say whether he bought a box, so we've got no idea if they're actually any good.

SEE ALSO: Journalist Dodges Bullets to Live-Tweet Taliban Attack

What other Twitter-themed snacks can we think up? I'll let NPR's Andy Carvin start us off:

Coming soon: Fail Whale Wafers. RT @combatjourno: Introducing @twitter Biscuits from Kab…
Continue reading...

More About: Photos, Social Media, Twitter, Watercooler, World, afghanistan, pics

November 11 2010

How Social Media Is Making Veteran Service Organizations Better

Veterans Image

Lisa Waananen is a freelance journalist and graphic designer in New York City, where she also helps with digital media training at Columbia University’s journalism school. You can follow her on Twitter @lisawaananen.

After getting off the phone one late September morning with another Department of Veterans Affairs representative who couldn’t explain why his GI Bill benefits hadn’t been processed, Iraq war veteran Aubrey Arcangel tweeted his frustration:

@DeptVetAffairs I spoke w/ 4 reps and provided my certID and trans# for my #GIBill cert. 2 weeks and still doesn’t show on my file!

Arcangel had previously vented on Twitter about the VA, but this was the first time he tried what a buddy called a “power tweet” with the details of his problem. And though Arcangel is optimistic about the power of social media — he tweets for Student Veterans of America and organizes their social media initiatives — he didn’t expect what happened next. As he sat on the bus headed to the national Student Veterans of America conference in Washington, D.C. the following day, his Twitter app alerted him of a new direct message. The VA had tweeted back.

“It’s almost liberating to know that you can contact them yourself through a different means and get a response,” Arcangel said.

Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have completely changed the way the VA and traditional veterans’ service organizations reach the new generation of veterans home from Iraq and Afghanistan -– and they’re finding that an increasing number of older veterans are connecting through social media, too.

“For years there’s been this stereotype, whether it’s deserved or not, that VA is made up of a bunch of faceless, nameless bureaucrats who sit around and don’t do anything,” said Brandon Friedman, the VA’s director of new media. “So in my view, the way to combat that is to put names and faces on everything. Not just so you can personalize it, but so there’s accountability — and people appreciate that.”

Outreach For a New Generation of Vets

Veterans Facebook Image

Friedman himself is the face behind the VA’s responses to veterans’ tweets and posts. Now the VA’s main Facebook Page has more than 69,000 subscribers — the largest following for any cabinet-level agency in the federal government — and nearly 9,000 Twitter followers, but the federal agency had very little social media knowledge or infrastructure when Friedman joined the VA in August 2009. It became his job to get everyone on the same page, and he was pleasantly surprised by how receptive VA employees were to using social media.

“I thought we were going to have to break out sledgehammers and break down walls and coerce people into using all these tools,” he said, “but in reality everybody was like, ‘Yeah, we’ve been wanting to do this for years!’”

For Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of American, the largest organization for veterans of the current wars, social media has always been a fundamental part of operations since the group was founded in 2004. Social media was a necessity in the early days, Digital Engagement Director Daniel Atwood said, because it was the only way IAVA could reach a large audience with such a small staff and limited resources. The organization still actively uses Twitter and Facebook — where it has more than 170,000 subscribers — and also runs a social networking site exclusively for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

“We try and weave social media in a smart, strategic way into absolutely everything that we do,” Atwood said. “We don’t view it as a separate thing that we need to do because it’s the hot trend, etc. It’s just a particularly powerful set of tools we’ve got at our disposal to help achieve our mission.”

It has been a longer learning curve for organizations accustomed to decades of printed newsletters and scheduled mailings, but they say social media lets them reach their members better than ever. Jerry Newberry, the director of communications for the VFW, said his organization has stepped up social media efforts in the past couple of years.

“We understand that technology is changing, communication is morphing constantly, and in order to reach the audience we want to reach — this new generation of veterans — we simply have to go where they go,” he said.

American Legion spokesman John Raughter said face-to-face contact is still important and happening every day at posts around the country, but social media is especially well-suited for veterans and service members who might be disabled, deployed or just working all day. “For them, the electronic media is a godsend,” he said.

Older Veterans Get on Board

As traditional veterans organizations started reaching out online, they discovered that veterans of previous wars are increasingly adopting the benefits of social media, too. Among the VA’s Facebook subscribers, more than a third are 45 or older, while only 8% are under 25, according to Friedman.

When Raughter started working at the American Legion a decade ago, there was a huge difference between younger members who used e-mail and older members who had never tried it. Now there are far more ways to communicate online — and far more young veterans — but that gap has diminished. “Now just about everybody, from World War II veterans on to the current generation, they’re getting online,” he said. “It’s no longer this big generation gap that used to exist.”

Newberry, of the VFW, counts Korean War and WWII veterans among his personal Facebook friends. “There’s some belief that there’s an age barrier there,” he said. “I don’t know why people make that assumption, because it’s simply not true.”

Over on the VA Facebook Page, the majority of commenters are not Iraq or Afghanistan vets. Many are Vietnam or Gulf War veterans, or their family members, who’ve been dealing with the VA long before the Internet became a standard way to communicate. Steve Wilkerson, a 67-year-old Vietnam veteran who blogs, tweets and checks into Foursquare, along with occasionally commenting on the VA’s Facebook Page, says he’d like to see the VA or another organization train older vets how to use basic social media tools so they can stay better connected.

He also hopes the VA will continue to be responsive on social media and make sure those comments get translated into action.

“If it’s just back and forth between me and some guy I was in Vietnam with and haven’t talked to for all that length of time — I mean, that will certainly be nice and I’ll be happy to hear from some of them — but it doesn’t by any means use the full capacity of social media for the VA.”

VA Builds a Strategy

VA Twitter Image

It’s a challenge that Friedman is well aware of as he monitors the VA’s sites each day and analyzes the statistics. By watching web traffic for the various VA websites, for example, Friedman decided it would be best to create a separate Facebook Page and Twitter feed for each of the 153 VA medical centers around the U.S., since people were searching for information at the local level.

“As a veteran myself, I understand why this is,” Friedman said. “When you live in like Texas or Nebraska or wherever, and you think of VA, you don’t think of VA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. You think of that big building on the other side of town.”

So local centers started joining the popular social networking sites last spring, after proving they had the staff and knowledge to do it properly. It’s Friedman’s goal to get all 153 up within a year, and they’re about a third of the way there with more than 50 on Facebook and nearly 30 on Twitter. Two or three new profiles launch each week, Friedman said. The demand is definitely there — a common complaint posted on the main VA Facebook Page is that a veteran’s local VA center doesn’t yet have a page.

With the main sites he manages, Friedman has been setting the standard for how VA employees can break through the long tradition of bureaucratic anonymity. He signs everything he posts, and each update on Facebook generates dozens of scattershot comments ranging from enthusiastic support to bitter grievances. Many of them are addressed personally to him:

“Thanks Brandon, where do we mail the form to?”

“Ya see how ANGRY so many Vets on here are Brandon?? WHY ya think that is??”

“Brandon, sounds like some good news for a change. Thanks for posting it! :-)”

“Brandon, you’ve taken on a big task …”

Friedman admits having his name out there so prominently is a double-edged sword, and it’s been harder to get other VA employees to identify themselves so personally. “I haven’t pushed it really hard because I can tell they’re very uncomfortable with it,” he said. “But they’re also falling behind, because we’re doing it, and it’s clearly a driver of subscribers and participation.”

Everyone involved says it’s too early to tell how much social media will help the new generation of veterans to get the care they need and benefits they deserve in the long run, but Friedman is confident that social media can create a cycle of accountability and confidence because everyone can see the conversation.

“They feel like they’re being listened to, they’re being responded to,” he said. “So whenever you help somebody, it doesn’t just help that one person — it helps build trust in your organization with everyone else who sees you helping.”

More Social Good Resources from Mashable:

- How Social Media is Helping Veterans Connect
- 5 Must-Follow Non-Profits Making a Difference With Social Media
- 3 Ways Small Businesses are Investing in Social Good
- HOW TO: Help Solve the Global Water Crisis with Social Media
- 3 Creative Social Good Campaigns that Will Make You Smile

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, adamkaz

More About: afghanistan, Army, BLOGS, facebook, IAVA, iraq, social media, troops, twitter, us army, veterans, veterans services

For more Social Good coverage:

October 18 2010

Secretary of Defense: WikiLeaks Hasn’t Compromised Intelligence Sources

This might change after WikiLeaks releases 400,000 new documents on the Iraq war this week, but the U.S. Department of Defense determined back in August that the previously leaked “Afghan War Reports” did not compromise any intelligence sources, which was the chief concern of those critical of WikiLeaks.

A letter [PDF] from Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates to Comittee of Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin dated August 16 but recently made available to the public says, “The initial assessment in no way discounts the risk to national security; however, the review to date has not revealed any sensitive intelligence sources and methods compromised by this disclosure.”

In other words, WikiLeaks didn’t expose any current U.S. intelligence operatives or operations. Gates says that this is in part because “most of the information contained in these documents relates to tactical military operations,” data about which is generally not sensitive after they’ve already occurred. But that doesn’t mean the leak didn’t make fighting for U.S. interests abroad more difficult.

Notably, “the documents do contain the names of cooperative Afghan nationals.” This concern has been raised before, and it’s the biggest problem with the “Afghan War Reports” as far as ethics are concerned.

Afghan nationals who aided U.S. intelligence or forces were named in the document, and the Taliban and affiliated organizations hostile to U.S. interests could use that information to target and punish the cooperative Afghans or their families.

The Pentagon threatened to take decisive action against WikiLeaks, but the organization did not take the threat seriously — at least publicly. On its Twitter account, WikiLeaks called the Pentagon’s threats “obnoxious,” adding, “What we didn’t hear from the Pentagon last week: ‘Killing all those innocent people is bad. Sorry. We will stop that.’”

What do you think: Is public access to the truth worth the “collateral damage” to U.S. sympathizers in war-torn regions?

[via FAS]

Reviews: Twitter, Wikileaks

More About: afghanistan, Department of Defense, dod, government, politics, robert gates, robert m gates, united states, war, wikileaks

For more Social Media coverage:

September 13 2010

Mashable Weekend Recap: 13 Stories You Might Have Missed

[sniplet name]

It’s Monday! Welcome back to work (or school). We hope you had a fantastic weekend, but the world of tech, social media, entertainment, business and everything else didn’t stop spinning while you were away. Thus, we’ve collected some of the most helpful stories from the weekend right here so you can start your week off as informed and entertained as possible.

This weekend, Facebook tested an app for finding new pages to “Like,” a number of people riffed on Google Instant by “instantizing” other sites like Google Maps and Images, Ask announced that Bloglines will shut down and MTV launched a Twitter Tracker for everyone keeping up with the 2010 VMAs. We also have some resources that should prove helpful, and a couple stories that were just plain fun.

Thanks for reading!

News Essentials

Helpful Resources

Weekend Leisure

More About: afghanistan, Army, art, bloglines, entertainment, facebook, Google, Google Maps, mashable weekend recap, military, myspace, Ping, social media, twitter, video music awards, vmas

For more Social Media coverage:

Army Commander Will Tweet From War-Torn Afghanistan

A British army commander will tweet updates about life in the military while serving a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan. It’s an unlikely task considering the life-and-death security issues involved.

The soldier is Lieutenant Colonel Dougie Graham, and he commands the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland — a sizable force of 450 soldiers. He’s currently in talks with his own commanding officers to work out exactly what he can and can’t include in his Twitter updates.

The battalion actually already has a Facebook page, so social media isn’t a new thing for them, but Graham hopes that a frequently updated Twitter account will help connect him and the men and women serving under his command with their families back home.

Telegraph, our source for this story, quotes Graham saying, “I would like to be able to give people a feel for the reality because it’s not all fighting, it’s not all bombs and bullets.”

Military officials around the world are understandably concerned that soldiers could create risks for themselves, their campaigns and others should they inadvertently share information on social media that would be useful to enemy forces. But the initial concern has been easing up lately.

The United States military recently reversed a general ban on social media that was imposed by certain branches such as the Marines. There are myriad caveats and potential exceptions, of course, but it’s a step for soldiers who want to stay in touch with friends and families while fighting abroad.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, Fribble

Reviews: Facebook, Twitter, iStockphoto

More About: afghanistan, Army, dougie graham, military, scotland, social media, tweet, twitter, war

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September 07 2010

Abducted Journalist Tweets from Captor’s Cellphone

A Japanese journalist held against his will in Afghanistan used a captor’s cellphone to tweet his status and location to his followers — right under said captor’s nose.

PC World reports that Kosuke Tsuneoka had been held in captivity for five months when a low-ranking soldier showed him his new cellphone, a Nokia N70. The soldier didn’t know how to use the phone or the Internet, so he asked Tsuneoka to show him.

Tsuneoka activated the Internet service on the phone by calling a support line and showed his captors how to read news from Al-Jazeera on the device. He then said that they should check out Twitter because they could use it to reach other journalists. Tsuneoka took the phone and used Twitter’s web interface to send two tweets in English:

The next day he was released, but his release didn’t seem to have anything to do with the tweets. The Associated Press speculates that Tsuneoka was released because he is a Muslim; he converted in 2000. This was actually the second time he had been taken into captivity on the job. The first was in Georgia in 2001.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, hidesy

More About: afghanistan, journalism, Mobile 2.0, Nokia, nokia n70, reporter, smartphone, social media, twitter, war

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September 02 2010

10 of the Web’s Most Insightful News Infographics

New Infographic

A picture is worth a thousand words. But if you include an entire database, make it interactive, and add filtering options, the word-to-picture exchange rate is even better.

Infographics at their best are more than just pictures — they can provide new understandings, succinct summaries, or just plain old fun.

In that respect, reading newspaper archives isn’t the only way to get a deeper understanding of current events. Infographics can help us get a better grasp on what’s going on.

Check out these 10 visualizations to learn more about the news with a quick look.

1. Google’s Appetite for Acquisition

Last month alone, Google acquired social-search service Angstro, visual shopping search engine like.com, and social currency company Jambool. Google has been on an acquisition binge for some time, and it’s getting tricky to keep track of its appetite.

This graphic shows a timeline of Google’s activity in three categories: “Building Revenue Streams,” “Cutting Competition,” or “A Little of Both.”

2. Gay Marriage Chronology

The campaign for gay marriage has passed a multitude of milestones over the last decade. Unfortunately for those trying to keep track of them, the victories and setbacks vary drastically by state. Decisions are reversed and in some cases overturned by higher courts, which makes progress hard to track.

This map from the LA Times shows the status of gay marriage in each state by month. Click on a state for its most recent ruling or watch the country change from being legally similar in its treatment of same-sex couples in 2000 to sharply divided in 2010.

3. IED Attacks from Wikileaks’ Afghanistan War Logs

The frequency and fatality of IEDs (homemade bombs) in Afghanistan was highlighted when WikiLeaks published more than 90,000 secret documents about the Afghan war. Anti-war activists published this illustrative video that includes all of the incidents reported in these leaked documents.

4. Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

On April 20, an explosion on a BP drilling rig started what has become the largest accidental oil spill in history. Despite numerous strategies that were deployed to plug the leak, it wasn’t capped until July 15.

This video graphic by New Orleans online newspaper NOLA wraps timeline, graphic, and cumulative damage data into one easy-to-digest piece of media.

5. CIA World Factbook Dashboard

The CIA World Factbook has always been a great resource for putting news stories into the context of their geographic location. But now it’s also easy to get the information at a glance.

The World Factbook Dashboard allows you to color code the countries of the world by population, population growth, infant mortality, agricultural GDP, industry GDP, services GDP, total GDP, GDP/inhabitant, or inflation. Clicking on a country zooms in for more information.

6. Geography of a Recession

This map from The New York Times illustrates not only which areas suffered the highest unemployment rate after the recession, but also offers the option to filter data by metropolitan areas, areas with housing bubbles, rural areas, and manufacturing centers.

7. Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Violence Map

The Wall Street Journal updates this map constantly with violent conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If you want to learn about the day-to-day details of the war or understand its scope, there’s no better visual resource.

8. What Does the Health Care Bill Mean to Me?

Even if you read through every health care bill article, it could be hard to exactly pick out what the law would change about your insurance coverage and taxes. The Washington Post made it easy by providing this nifty tool. Input whether you have insurance coverage, your family size, your income, and your marital status, and it will tell you how health care reform will impact your life.

For the broader picture on healthcare reform, see this subway-style map from GOOD Magazine.

9. Obama’s $787 Billion Economic Stimulus Plan

The government is still busy spending much of the $787 billion it allotted for the economic stimulus in February of last year. This infographic effectively illustrates how that huge chunk of change is being distributed.

10. American Casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Beyond

This chilling interactive graphic from USA Today simply illustrates the deaths in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Information seekers can search deaths by personal factors like name, age, gender, race, or home town as well as by military service details, date, cause, or place.

CNN has a more elaborate version here.

More Graphics Resources from Mashable:

- 5 Fab Twitter Follower Visualization Tools
- 10 Beautiful Social Media Infographics
- 5 Amazing Infographics for the Health Conscious
- 10 Essential Free E-Books for Web Designers
- 12 Beginner Tutorials for Getting Started With Photoshop

More About: afghanistan, bp, current events, gay rights, graphics, healthcare reform, infographics, iraq, News, oil-spill, stimulus, visualizations, wikileaks

For more Tech coverage:

August 05 2010

Pentagon to WikiLeaks: Return Our Secret Documents, Or Else

The U.S. Department of Defense has issued a demand to WikiLeaks: Return all the secret documents related to the war in Afghanistan, or else.

In a press briefing, Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell made it very clear the Pentagon isn’t playing along; it wants its documents back or it will find ways to “compel them to do the right thing,” according to reports from the press conference:

“We want whatever they have returned to us and we want whatever copies they have expunged… We demand that they do the right thing. If doing the right thing is not good enough for them, then we will figure out what alternatives we have to compel them to do the right thing.”

WikiLeaks made international headlines when it published more than 90,000 military reports, many of them secret, related to the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Information from the documents was simultaneously published in The New York Times, The Guardian in the UK and Der Spiegel in Germany. Many organizations, including the Pentagon, are still sifting through the mountains of documents.

This isn’t the U.S. government’s first clash with WikiLeaks. Just last week, Jacob Appelbaum, a security research and programmer, was briefly detained by U.S. authorities and probed on his involvement with the controversial website. Appelbaum’s three mobile phones were also confiscated.

Government insiders have also told WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that he could be arrested if he returns to the U.S.

For all their hauteur, these ominous words from the government aren’t fazing WikiLeaks. The WikiLeaks Twitter account called the Pentagon’s threats “obnoxious.”

“What we didn’t hear from the Pentagon last week: ‘Killing all those innocent people is bad. Sorry. We will stop that,’” the WikiLeaks rep continued via Twitter.

What do you think of WikiLeaks’ role in these government PR disasters? Should the site return the documents in their possession? We welcome your opinions in the comments.

More About: afghanistan, Department of Defense, government, Pentago, U.S. Military, wikileaks

For more Tech coverage:

July 26 2010

WikiLeaks Releases Afghan War Reports in Unprecedented Leak

A website called WikiLeaks just published secret documents related to the United States’ war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The documents detail deals, armed conflicts, strategies, politics, intelligence operations and some casualties from 2004 and 2010, painting the most complete publicly available picture of the Afghan War yet.

The event is in some ways comparable to the leak of the Pentagon Papers, a set of documents that provided a behind-the-scenes look at the American war in Vietnam. Those papers reached the public in 1971. At more than to 90,000 reports, WikiLeaks’ Afghan War Diary is even more substantial. By some measures it is the biggest intelligence leak ever.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assage told the UK newspaper The Guardian that the size of the leak is only one dimension of its significance:

This situation is different in that it’s not just more material and being pushed to a bigger audience and much sooner … but rather that people can give back. So people around the world who are reading this are able to comment on it and put it in context and understand the full situation. That is not something that has previously occurred. And that is something that can only be brought about as a result of the Internet.

Two months ago, we put WikiLeaks first in a list of innovative websites that could reshape the news. The site accepts submissions of confidential political or corporate documents, reviews them to make sure they’re accurate, then publishes them on the web for anyone to see. WikiLeaks has previously leaked e-mails from Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and a video of U.S. soldiers killing civilians.

Assage was careful to point out that the Afghan War Diary is comprised of old reports, not future military plans, so its usefulness to NATO’s enemies in the battlefield should be limited. The people able to make the most informed decisions about whether or not the release of information can endanger American interests or lives are those working inside the Pentagon, but those are the very people WikiLeaks is trying to keep accountable. The controversy of values is clear.

WikiLeaks is able to solicit submissions from all over the world while avoiding jurisdiction by operating in several countries at once — or none at all, depending on your interpretation of the situation. This wasn’t possible before the web. Now it is, and the implications for society are significant.

How the Leak Happened

The Afghan War Diary was simultaneously given to reporters from The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel several weeks in advance so those reporters could study the documents and provide context with their public release. It was also given to those three publications so that no one national government could censor it.

WikiLeaks removed data that could implicate its sources, but the U.S. military already has an alleged WikiLeaks source in custody: 22-year intelligence analyist Bradley Manning, who The Guardian says is suspected as the source of the video that depicted U.S. soldiers killing civilians. So far we’ve seen no evidence for or against any connection between the Afghan War Diary and Manning.

Politico reports that The White House released a critical statement in response to the leak, saying the U.S. “strongly condemns” the disclosure. The statement criticized WikiLeaks for not approaching the White House for comment or verification, and claimed that the bleak logs record events that took place before the Obama administration’s change in strategy.

What the Leak Includes

The three publications given early access to the reports have made a few similar observations about what they say. Foremost is the general narrative that the situation in Afghanistan is bleaker than any of the governments involved would have you believe, particularly when it comes to collaboration between the United States and Pakistan.

Several reports either directly or indirectly implicate the ISI, a Pakistani intelligence agency, in aiding Taliban fighters. There are some suggestions in the reports that current or former members of the ISI have actually met with Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders to collaboratively organize attacks on American troops.

However, the New York Times notes that some of the reports on that subject come from Afghanistan intelligence, which has a negative relationship with Pakistan and a potential interest in damaging its reputation at the least. Other reports detail NATO-ordered civilian killings, specifics as to why NATO progress has been slow at best, and other bleak pictures of the activities in the war.

Apart from the WikiLeaks website, you can find report specifics in an interactive map The Guardian produced to highlight 300 critical reports found in the leak.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, rubenhi

More About: afghan war, afghan war diary, afghanistan, julian assage, media, News, Pakistan, politics, war, wikileaks

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June 25 2010

How Social Media is Helping Veterans Connect

Social Media Camouflage

Today, the United States reflects on the 60th anniversary of the Korean War. For those who fought in the conflict and returned home, staying in touch with fellow service members was a battle in itself; many lost contact with their friends. Those who managed to find each other did so using resources and technologies now considered obsolete: Phone books, microfiche, and even old-fashioned letter writing.

Today, e-mail and other social media tools are the primary methods of communication for almost anyone who owns a computer. But for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, social media has been a lifeline, keeping them apprised of the latest news from back home, and reconnecting them with comrades when they return from deployment.

Keeping in Touch During Deployment

Captain Nate Rawlings, 28, served two tours in Iraq with the Army’s First Battalion, Twenty Second Infantry Regiment, Fourth Infantry Division. His younger sister created a Facebook profile for him prior to his first deployment. He used the page through both of his deployments to tell his friends when he’d be out, to check back in when he returned, and to find out how his parents were coping with his absence. “If my dad felt that my mother really needed to hear my voice, he would put a message on my wall that said ‘E.T. phone home,’” says Rawlings. “And so I would find a phone.”

But he wasn’t using social media just to reassure his mother. Nate was using it for his own reassurance. His Facebook page became a window into the life he left behind. “People would be getting married, people would be having kids, and people would be graduating from college or high school, and so it was a neat way to see those pictures and think: ‘OK, I’m not completely isolated from my friends,” he says.

Social Veterans Causes

SWAN Facebook Image

Today’s veterans are also using social media as a method of mobilizing fellow veterans and bringing awareness to the causes they support. Anuradha K. Bhagwati left the Marine Corps as a captain in 2004. She was only the second woman to complete the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program instructor trainer school, and holds a black belt in close combat techniques. Today, she’s executive director of SWAN (Service Women’s Action Network) and also one of its original founders. What began as a healing network for women veterans is now taking an advocacy role under her leadership.

“It started out with this healing community element where women would feel safe,” she says. “We kept that at the core of what we do, but we’re dealing up front with some serious policy issues: How to transform military culture so that rape and harassment [don’t] happen.”

Through an awareness campaign that includes speaking at panels, partnerships with other organizations and even online advertising, SWAN’s Facebook Page presently counts almost 2,400 followers. “I think we had less than 1,000 in December,” says Bhagwati. “We just started up a Facebook site in the fall [of 2009].” Using SWAN’s Facebook and Twitter pages, women veterans can find everything from SWAN-sponsored community events (yoga and gardening classes), to resources for homeless veterans, to a phone number for their LGBT women’s hotline. “A lot of [gay service members] will find our helpline information on our website,” she says. “If they need resources, they’ll find us.”

Connecting Veteran Communities

IAVA Image

The use of social media to connect members of a similar community is a tried and true approach. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) is a non-profit organization that, according to their website, “is the nation’s first and largest group dedicated to the troops and veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan” and their civilian supporters. Their mission is simple: To improve the lives of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families.

One of the ways that IAVA employs social media is through their website’s Community of Veterans (COV) feature. Though IAVA’s membership is approximately 125,000 people, only 55,000 are veterans, of which only 5,200 belong to the COV. Jason Hansman, community manager for the COV says that before he approves anyone for membership, the person has to submit paperwork “that proves definitively that they were boots-on-ground in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

With only 0.5% of the American population knowing what it’s like to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan, the therapeutic value of joining such a network can’t be overstated. “Someone coming back home in Montana is not necessarily going to have a neighbor that served in Iraq or even understand what serving in combat is like,” he says. “Community of Veterans fills that gap, so they can connect with veterans all over the country.”

Once a veteran logs into COV’s main page, he or she can enter a real-time chat room, join one of the 288 groups that already exists, or start a new group. The groups, as diverse as their audience, include everyone from tattooed vets, to Army Airborne alumni, to those who are living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Those who wish to join the PTSD support group must submit additional paperwork verifying they have it, ensuring another layer of protection and privacy for those already in the network.

Because of the tighter scrutiny and selective admission into the PTSD support group, “the conversations blossom into something much deeper than what’s going on out in the forums,” says Hansman.

IAVA recently partnered with a new social media service called JustCoz that allows its supporters to donate one tweet a day to IAVA. Based on JustCoz’s premise that “a message from someone you know personally is five times more likely to trigger an action,” supporters can log into their Twitter page via JustCoz and give IAVA the ability to tweet one message a day.

According to Anuradha Bhagwati, “We do serve a lot of older veterans and they tend not to find out about some really neat stuff that’s going on because they’re not as fluid with this new media.” It could be that the real downside to social media might be not using it at all.

For more Social Media coverage:

More Social Media Resources From Mashable:

- HOW TO: Help New Users Stay Engaged on Twitter
- 3 Things Facebook Does Very Well
- How Salespeople Are Using Social Media for Real Results
- Why Facebook Can’t Genuinely Connect People
- 5 Terrific Tools for Keeping Tabs on Twitter Trends

More About: afghanistan, facebook, iraq, military, online communities, social good, social media, twitter, U.S. Military, veterans

January 27 2010

War Protesters Storm Facebook Before the State of the Union Address

An organization called Rethink Afghanistan has executed a widespread war protest on the White House’s Facebook page.

It began with a drive for 20,000 signatures at Rethink Afghanistan’s website, but folks who added their signatures were also given instructions for participating in the Facebook protest.

Hundreds of people have posted the following message or something very close to it to the White House page:

“President Obama, I am one of more than 20,000 signers of this petition from Rethink Afghanistan: ‘In your State of the Union address on January 27, 2010, I want you to provide a concrete exit strategy for our troops in Afghanistan that begins no later than July 2011 and which completes a withdrawal of combat troops no later than July 1, 2012.’ Petition: http://bit.ly/7romlW

The posts link back to the petition page outside Facebook, soliciting more signatures and thus training more people to participate in the protest. We’re not sure how many people have posted on the White House’s wall in the protest, but as the message says, more than 20,000 have signed the petition.

Rethink Afghanistan has set up a Ustream embed on its own Facebook page, where it will air the anti-war documentary Cost of War with an introduction by Robert Greenwald at 7:15 p.m. EST tonight. After the one-hour documentary, Greenwald will answer questions leading up to the president’s State of the Union, which will also stream on the Facebook page.

Regardless of your political stance, this is an interesting (but not surprising) use of social media. Do you think social media protests could have an impact on policy?

Tags: afghanistan, barack obama, facebook, politics, protest, robert greenwald, state of the union

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