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How social media is helping today's war veterans

Steve Fisher
Steve Fisher, a marine sergeant in Iraq

By Franz Strasser
BBC World News America, Washington

US veterans are logging onto Facebook in an attempt to share their war experiences, connect with colleagues, and remember fallen friends.

"These were the guys I was with when I got hit the first time," reads a photo caption by Steve Fisher, a marine sergeant in Iraq. He posted a photo of his Humvee on Facebook before and after an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded under the rear end of the car on 24 January 2006.

Fisher, who joined the marines after 9/11 when he was a senior in high school, would get hit by two more roadside bombs by the time his three combat deployments to Iraq were over.

Cory 1
Cpl Jonathan Savallo posted this photo of his platoon in Afghanistan.

On his Facebook profile, Fisher has posted photos from a vacation in San Diego and his 25th birthday party. But it is the 108 photos in an album titled Marine Pics 3rd deployment to Iraq which stand out.

Fisher has shared some of these photos in several groups, including one of his best friend, Sgt Ryan Cummings, who was killed in action in June 2006.

"Not everybody might know about his legacy, about his obituary website, but everybody can go to Facebook and look, and if they want to leave a message they can," says Fisher. "It's a good way to relieve some stress overall."

Shared experiences

Veterans who post photos and comments on social networks feel a need to tell a story and to make their personal experience public, says Dr Richard Tedeschi, a psychologist and professor at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte.

"People who have fought these conflicts are looking for people who had similar experiences," says Dr Tedeschi.

"Many have lost track of other people in their units and feel like nobody can identify with them."

When Timothy Lee Webb, a senior airman in the US Air Force, got honourably discharged after two stints to the Middle East as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he founded a group on Facebook to connect with fellow air force veterans.

It's the way people communicate now
Brandon Friedman, Department of Veterans Affairs

Since its inception two years ago, the group has grown to over 3,200 members and the wall is full of posts from veterans listing their dates and locations of deployments.

"It's nice to be able to relate to somebody that you never even met and it's interesting that they had experienced similar situations," says Webb, who was not surprised at all by how quickly the community grew.

"Word travels fast on Facebook," Webb says.

Trend spotting

Which is exactly why in the summer of 2009, the Department of Veterans Affairs gave Brandon Friedman the task of coordinating the agency's efforts on various social networks.

Friedman, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, quickly set up a Facebook page, and created accounts on Twitter, YouTube and Flickr, the photo sharing service.

"For the longest time, the department did not have a two-way conversation and there was very little interaction with snail mail and official notices," says Friedman.

"Now we can spot trends before they get to be big deals - both positive and negative - and we can test the waters by watching Facebook comments."

By posting twice a day, Friedman reaches over 71,000 people who follow the page. One of those posts included a link to an article about veterans in college feeling misunderstood and out-of-place.

His call to share thoughts and experiences garnered dozens of comments in a matter of hours.

With thousands of young soldiers joining the ranks of veterans in the next years, Friedman is setting up Facebook pages and Twitter accounts for all 153 medical centres across the country.

"It's the way people communicate now. We want to get them right when they leave the service and maintain a relationship," says Friedman.

For Veterans Day on 11 November, Steve Fisher has been invited to visit his former high school and talk to students about his experience.

"Everybody should know what war looks like, because they all have to deal with it in one way or another when veterans return," he says.

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