A New Approach For Veterans

Why is it harder for veterans and their families to get access to the right kind of services than it is to get cash out of an ATM? Why can I pay for a coffee with my phone, but we still largely use paper - might as well be papyrus - to manage veteran casework?

15 years after 9/11 and the Long Wars, things are changing - and for the better. This Veterans Day, the parade in New York City will mark the first instance, maybe in history, in which social services and care were administered digitally to the very population being celebrated. As easily as you enter a PIN number, we will actually be providing veterans and their families along the parade's march real value in real time. Let me explain.

I was just out of the Army when United Airlines Flight 93 was driven into the earth just a few hundred miles away. Months later, I saw teens in my neighborhood answer the call. Many of them went off to war. Some would not return. Those who did return home, many were put through a "transition"--an abrupt few days where they went from solider to civilian. One day you're in; the next, you're out. Many of these young men and women would return home having to completely start over. What's worse, most would not know what services or resources were available to them in their own communities.

Transition has vexed me since I traded my uniformed service for a different kind of public service, but only now, after a decade in the trenches, is technology really catching up to the complexity of the transition "gap." I became acutely aware of this gap when after Army service, working deeply on initiatives to solve veteran housing. We solved lots of problems, but we were always vexed by these gaps--the tyranny of eligibility, I called it -- that makes even the simplest of programs complex and disqualifies even the worthiest of cases.

Like many of you that care about vets, or that are vets, I knew we as a society, and me as a citizen, needed to do more. I left the rigid boundaries of state government to try my hand at more unconventional and localized solutions. Shifting from Macro to Micro, I traded large scale approaches for face-to face problem solving. Shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow, in these new trenches within a community I gained a fresh perspective.

Meaningful fixes for veteran re-integration couldn't simply be legislated down, they had to bubble up from the communities where these troopers lived. The community that raised and sent these young men and women off to war now had a critical role to play in bringing them home. Throughout my time working alongside and in service of veterans, service members and their families, I can confidently say that a lack of coordination and shared purpose among veteran and military-family serving organizations--public, private, and nonprofit alike--poses a serious risk to long-term veteran and family wellbeing. Given the quantity and fragmentation of actors across the veterans' services landscape, local communities confront a challenge and opportunity to maximize and sustain positive impacts on their veterans and military families. Put simply, the leading gap in veterans and military family services in the United States is not a lack of resources or capacity, but a lack of coordination and collective purpose.

Mind the Gap. Just like community policing, all complex social challenges benefit from thoughtfully applied technology to track the challenges and pinpoint the hotspots--and the solutions. Technology alone, however, is not enough. You need an organizational framework within which to apply it. I first saw this from the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University (IVMF). They developed a way to coordinate a network with applied technology, and the right blend of public and private partners to pull it all off. Undergirding this network of community partners, many of them service providers like Goodwill or the USO, is a technology platform provided by Unite US, a NYC-based veteran owned start-up. The network uses this platform to make and accept referrals, track on-going service provision and report outcomes; allowing for full transparency and dashboards across the network. Furthermore, through robust data collection and reporting, the technology enables the network to quickly identify service areas where increased capacity is needed to best meet the needs of the veteran community at large.

I've watched that program in New York, named NYServes-NYC, which is a collaboration of 80+ health and human services providers from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors capable of addressing the needs of service members, veterans, and military families who call the five boroughs of New York City home.

This week we will observe Veteran's Day in New York City. And for the first time ever, America's Parade will be more than just the nation's largest celebration of those who served. It will be an accessible lifeline: a place for service members, veterans, and military families to request assistance from the NYServes - NYC Network. In partnership with the United War Veterans Council, the NYC Department of Veterans' Services, Northwell Health, and New York City-area health and human service providers, volunteers will man kiosks along the parade route, encouraging and assisting individuals to register for the city's network of services. In the country's largest city, on veterans' largest stage, this initiative will allow NYServes - NYC to reach and serve thousands of our nation's heroes.

Much has changed since 2001. Back then, there was no Facebook. Today there are over one and a half billion users on the platform. Indeed, it seems that more and more facets of our daily lives are being changed by technology. And yet, despite this explosive evolution of technology, service provision for our nation's greatest assets remained a relic. Mountains of paperwork in a world seemingly paperless.

This Veteran's Day, some 15 after the 9/11 attacks, by making collaboration and coordination of services possible, it seems technology is finally beginning to catch up with how we serve our vets.