Marine Finds Unlikely Reinforcements Online: Nerds

John Hodgman was right. It’s the revenge of the nerds in America right now. These past few years we’ve seen self-proclaimed, highly-influential nerds using the power of online technology to play a huge role in driving public policy, political campaigns and organizing grassroots engagement. In the 2008 presidential campaign both McCain and Obama harnessed the power of new media to address voters, raise millions and rally their supporters.  And just in the last two weeks, Twitter is revolutionizing the way protests are coordinated and communicated in Iran.

But social networking isn’t just for electoral battles.  It’s transforming the way communities organize for the public good. And now, nerds -- and I say that with the utmost respect -- are changing the lives of thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Case in point, Rey Leal, an Iraq veteran, found his community online and began his journey home from war:

Rey served in Fallujah during some of the heaviest fighting, earning a Bronze Star with valor as a Private First Class, an almost unheard of accomplishment for a Marine of his rank. When he was discharged in February 2008, Rey looked forward to returning to Texas to begin a new chapter with his wife and infant son.  Unfortunately, Rey’s transition home from combat was far from easy.  He struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and spent months trying to deal with his symptoms, including severe depression and insomnia. His marriage at a breaking point, Rey sought treatment. 

Yet, instead of having resources at his fingertips, his closest VA hospital was over five hours away. And at his nearest outpatient clinic, there was just one psychologist, taking appointments only two days a week. It wasn’t until Rey saw IAVA’s “Alone” Public Service Announcement on TV that his transitional journey began.

He decided to check out the website,—a social network exclusively for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The first of its kind, the website is the linchpin of a new national outreach campaign to ease the transition for vets returning home from combat.

Immediately, Rey found a community on Thousands of other veterans were inside.  For the first time since returning home, Rey started to feel like he wasn’t operating in a silo with unique issues, but could share them with his peers, many of whom were all tackling the same issues he was.

According to Rey, "“I honestly didn’t find help until I learned of IAVA and Community of Veterans.  This made me realize that I wasn’t alone in my struggle.  I felt I could talk to these strangers about my problems on COV and for some reason they wouldn’t judge me.  I knew they understood.”"

Rey told his story to other veterans through IAVA’s social networking tools and yesterday, I shared his journey with a much wider audience -- again with a little help from technology. I was at the Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) in New York City to present IAVA’s groundbreaking new social networking site with Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark and Ning CEO Gina Bianchini. For those of you who don’t know, the PdF is the world's largest conference on technology and politics. Everyone from Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Ana Marie Cox have come together to explore how technology is transforming politics, democracy and society.

But isn’t just a tech phenomenon—it’s a movement that is literally saving lives. And for that, we have online technology (and countless nerds) to thank.

Crossposted at