When Elana Duffy was medically-retired from the Army, she found herself facing the necessary but overwhelming task of navigating all of the resources that are out there to help veterans. It was difficult to discern which resources would best serve her particular needs, not to mention figuring out which services she could actually qualify for.
“There are some 40,000 nonprofits that are supposed to help veterans when they get out and there are an untold number of federal, state, city and county agencies,’” says Duffy. She thought, “‘How are you supposed to filter any of this? How are you supposed to know where to go?’”
Duffy had a graduate degree in engineering and a rapidly growing veteran-support network, and she decided to put them both to use. She developed Pathfinder, an online crowdsourcing platform for veterans and their families to share reviews of relevant services and resources.
After a decade in the military, Duffy had found a new mission: to ease veterans’ transitions back to civilian life as much as possible by leveraging smart technology — all while strengthening the veteran community.
“A Round Of Bad Luck”
It all changed for Duffy back in October of 2005, when she had what she calls “a round of bad luck.”
She was traveling in the lead vehicle in a convoy on an Iraqi highway when the truck in front of her vehicle stopped short. Her vehicle collided with the stopped truck, a sedan and a parked front loader. The impact was so great that the chain reaction from the convoy caused the construction vehicle to spin around.
Duffy’s boot caught in the back of the truck, and her ankle twisted around a piece of metal. Without an x-ray, she was diagnosed with a sprained ankle, advised to wrap it, and told to keep going.
Two weeks later, Duffy was traveling in another convoy that was struck by a roadside bomb.
From the close range impact, she was blown backwards and hit her head on a metal plate. “I was very disoriented, didn’t know who anybody was or what was going on. I was reading all the infantry guys’ names off of their name tapes,” says Duffy. “I was bleeding from my ears, but we just thought that I had popped my eardrum.” Believing that her disorientation was stress-related, Duffy was sent to mental health and cleared for duty.
But four months later, when Duffy finished deployment and returned to Fort Bragg, she was finally able to get an MRI for her ankle, which revealed a chipped bone, two torn tendons and a torn ligament. By that point, however, the ankle had already started to heal, so the doctors told Duffy that it was just going to hurt while mending continued, but that there wasn’t much that they could do.
Duffy experienced regular headaches, significant memory loss and a host of other problems — but it wasn’t until she started to lose her vision about a year-and-a-half later that she was sent to a neurologist, who told her that she had all of the classic signs of a traumatic brain injury. An MRI revealed a coagulated mass in her brain about the size of a large egg that was pushing on her ocular nerve as the result of a brain hemorrhage.
Finding A New Mission
Following surgery to remove part of the mass, Duffy still suffered from symptoms related to both her head and ankle injuries — symptoms from which she would never recover and that have become more pronounced as time has passed. But not one to be easily deterred, Duffy was eager to get back to work. She was assigned to a special mission unit — she even volunteered to deploy again. But when she tried to get medical clearance to deploy, the consulting physician told her that she should have been evaluated for medical discharge.
As she navigated her new civilian life with a host of injuries, Duffy researched, applied and tried as many veteran benefits and resources as she could, but found the process to be daunting and frustrating.
As someone with previous professional experience as a civilian, advanced degrees and a rapidly expanding veteran-network, Duffy thought that, if she found the process to be overwhelming, what must it be like for younger and less-experienced veterans who were facing all of this for the first time?
Through trial-and-error, she began to find the programs and resources that best worked for herself and wanted to help others do the same. As friends and colleagues asked her for opinions and referrals, Duffy started to wonder, why isn’t all of the information online somewhere? The idea for Pathfinder was born.
“I wanted to help get people matched up with an organization that would benefit them the first time that they walked in — and to encourage them to keep on going,” she says. “I sort of made it my mission.”
With the help of an entrepreneurship training program at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, Duffy was able to take her mission to the next level. She wanted Pathfinder to be more than just an aggregation of crowd-sourced reviews and ratings; she wanted to connect veterans to the right resource. So she decided to incorporate artificial intelligence into the platform.
For military veterans and their family members who participate, the platform uses three different AI systems to analyze their personalities, their motivations and their preferences. Insights and data help produce resource recommendations to successfully meet each user’s needs. “We try to break it down to a more granular level to be able to figure out who is like you, and then what paths are they taking that they are finding to be successful. Who’s doing the most good for them?” says Duffy. By analyzing each person’s responses, circumstances, demographics, tone and tendencies, Pathfinder is able to create customized suggestions, tailored to each individual.
Organizations that choose to partner with Pathfinder can benefit from the platform as well, from gathering feedback about their programs, from the AI and from coaching. The AI and general assessments can help them to better understand where they are achieving the most success with customers and patrons, and to identify critical areas of improvement. The Pathfinder team will then work with the organization to make assessments and to coach them on possible improvements. Moreover, the organizations then use the data to show their donors where they are achieving impact.
Engineering A New Life
Pathfinder currently has over 1000 registered and actively reviewing members, but Duffy hopes that those numbers will grow exponentially. The more data that the platform can source, the better the AI will work for veterans.
“My hope is to grow the number of reviewing veterans and their families from around the country,” she explains. “If we start integrating the system earlier in the military career, we as a community can eliminate the gaps in benefits and services between leaving the military and settling into civilian life. This would reduce a lot of challenges and the effects, like depression, homelessness, and suicide in the veteran community,” says Duffy.
As the network grows stronger, Duffy hopes that the veteran community itself will likewise grow stronger. As Duffy describes, military service becomes part of one’s identity and can create instant bonds with strangers long after service has ended. “When you are feeling lost or confused or alone,” says Duffy, “that feeling of having around 20 million allies of all ages, races, beliefs and backgrounds can be huge.”
Brought to you by USAA. Proud supporter of the military community. What you’re MADE of, we’re MADE for™. Visit USAA.com to learn more.
USAA means United Services Automobile Association and its Affiliates.
USAA does not officially sponsor or endorse Pathfinder or its programs.
This article was paid for by USAA and co-created by RYOT Studio. HuffPost editorial staff did not participate in the creation of this content.