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Island Getaways for Vets a 'Click' Away

There were no lines when I got to the Veterans Health Administration office.

http://www.military.com/news/article/island-gataways-for-vets-a-click-away.html

June 26, 2009
Military.com|by Bryant Jordan

There also was no one sitting at a desk -- merely a sign reading "Click here for Contact Details.” And there was no one moving about anywhere in the building, so far as I could see.

But there was a video screen on the wall with actor Gary Sinise offering support for vets and encouraging them to get help if they're stressed and have suicidal thoughts. Other walls bore oversized posters touting veteran health care benefits that, with a "click," reveal additional information. One wall bore a U.S. map that could provide locations of VA facilities, and elsewhere there were posters entitled "VA News" and "The American Veteran," which were links to additional benefits information.

So, just because I could, I jumped up and sat on top of the desk, then flew around the office, out the door and took in a birds-eye view of the place.

Such is the power of a virtual Veterans Health Administration office, existing as one "island" among many in a digital archipelago called Second Life, a computer-generated world created by Linden Lab of San Francisco. Access to VHA’s Second Life island can be found on its Web site, www.va.gov/health.

"About two years ago we were asked to explore all means of outreach to our veterans," said Joyce Bounds, director for VHA Web communications in Washington. The emphasis is on the younger vets, she said, who are so used to electronic communications; they looked at the various social media -- YouTube, Facebook and the virtual reality worlds of Second Life. The VHA's virtual world started out as one building, she said, "a two-story home ... with VA logos on it, a computer screen you can touch and find out where VA facilities are."

They would put up press releases on the site and posted a version the GI Bill on what looks like a roll of parchment paper. And when Veterans Day rolled around they put up an American flag that flies in the virtual breeze outside the building.

Especially for younger veterans who’ve grown up accustomed to video games and computer-generated graphics, the virtual world that provides both access and anonymity would seem a great way to get information and help from the VHA.

"Virtual reality is set up for gaming," Bounds said, "but we found there is a real training opportunity when you work in a simulated environment, you can let people go where and when they want.”

But in the half-dozen visits that Military.com made to VHA's island, we were the only ones present, with Sinise's narrative the only sound.

Bounds cannot say how many vets have visited the site -- or even if those who have been there are vets, since everyone is anonymous.

"We've not set up for measurement," she said, and acknowledged that "we're getting better [responses] out of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. ... This is not high volume like Facebook."

The purpose of the Second Life site is to give some vets, particularly those who wish to remain anonymous, an alternative means of communicating to the VA. "You don't even look like yourself" in the virtual world, she said.

VHA is not alone among government agencies or veteran-oriented organizations which have set up virtual locations. The Disabled American Veterans has two islands, says spokesman Joe Chenelly -- one for the general public and one for DAV members. Links to its islands also are found on its Web site, www.dav.org.

"We are hoping it will enable us to reach younger vets, and we believe this type of outreach will give disabled vets more access to our services," Chenelly said. Like the VHA's island, the DAV's features a plaza, some buildings and an assortment of posters and signs that a visitor may interact with and get information.

And also like the VHA island, it was uninhabited during Military.com's visit.

"We advertise [our island] in Second Life, we have posted it on our Web site, and we have advertised our island on Facebook and Twitter,” Chenelly said. “To be honest, I am not sure when or if Second Life will take off [as a popular social venue], but if it does, we will be ready."

Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America in Maryland, is familiar with the Second Life worlds, but says VVA has not established one.

"Some of the [social networking] things people are using make sense. I don't know if this does because of the amount of stuff you have to download to take advantage of it," he told Military.com.

Other sites prove to be stronger.

"Student Veterans of America went from 20 schools [participating] to over 200 just using Facebook," he said. "Other veterans groups are doing the same thing, with that and with Twitter."

But currently, while there are a number of "Vietnam Veterans of America" accounts on Facebook -- some with as few as three members, some with several hundred -- they are local or regional groups.

According to John Rowan, national president and chief executive officer of VVA, the national VVA has yet to jump into the electronic community.

"I've got a Facebook account," he said. "I haven't even utilized it."