National

Sep 18, 2012 2:34 PM by Lauren Molenburg

As new Vets go online, VA and others follow

DENVER (AP) -- Busy, tech-savvy and often miles from their peers, thousands of new veterans are going online to find camaraderie or get their questions answered - forcing big changes in long-established veterans groups and inspiring entrepreneurs to launch new ones.

"We're going back to school, we have full-time jobs, we have families and kids," said Marco Bongioanni, 33, of New York, who deployed to Iraq twice while on active duty in the Army.

That leaves little time for what he calls "brick-and-mortar" groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.

Bongioanni and many other men and women who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are gravitating to websites open only to them, where they can talk about GI Bill education benefits, job hunting, the personal toll of war and other concerns they share, any time, day or night.

"The fact that it's a virtual world, 24/7, allows us to manage it better," said Bongioanni, now a major in the Army Reserve and attending Army Command and General Staff College in Georgia.

They can also track their health benefits on a Department of Veterans Affairs website and read the VFW magazine on their smartphones, upgrades prompted at least in part by the needs and habits of the 1.4 million veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not all the changes are happening online. The VFW's oldest chapter, Post 1 in Denver, was created in 1899 by First Colorado Volunteers returning from the Philippines in the Spanish-American War. Today, it's reorganizing around the needs of the new veterans.

Post 1 emphasizes activism, working with veterans groups on college campuses, sponsoring outings for families of deployed servicemen and women and coordinating with a group that helps families reconnect after a deployment.

Izzy Abbass, post commander and a 44-year-old Army veteran of the first Gulf War, said he has deep respect for the previous generation of veterans and is grateful for what they accomplished, on the battlefield and at home. He said older veterans in Post 1 are among the strongest advocates for making changes to engage the new generation.

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 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.

The American Legion and VFW have launched Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, but the transition to the web isn't always easy.

When the Legion wanted to start taking membership applications and renewals online, it "literally took an act of Congress," national communications director John Raughter said.

Congress chartered the Legion in 1919 - its purposes include "to cement the ties and comradeship born of service" - and any change in the Legion's constitution, such as new membership procedures, requires congressional action.

The Legion and VFW say their membership numbers show they're connecting with new veterans. The Legion, with 2.4 million members, has grown by 50,000 since 2009, Raughter said.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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