Social media brings new hope to returning soldiers

When David Johnson returned to his hometown in Phoenix, Az. after duty in Iraq he felt ill at ease integrating back into civilian life.

It would have helped were there fellow soldiers to share a story or two outside of the base, and at the time Johnson had no idea there were more than 600,000 veterans in his state.

While the rest of the world was enjoying new found interconnectivity through Facebook and MySpace, social networking sites were strictly off limits to military personnel.

However, in March this year, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) issued a policy finally approving, and in fact encouraging, use of social media by military rank and file.

The DoD announced it would allow military personnel to use social networking sites such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook on the government network.

The policy change does come with a caveat.

Military personnel must use non-classified computers and their activities must not “jeopardize operational security” or involve restricted sites, such as those promoting gambling or pornography.

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Armedzilla

Johnson, a former special operations soldier, who survived three separate assignments in Iraq, from 2003 to 2005, believes the move will help many soldiers battle stress and the feeling of alienation they often experience when returning to a civilian environment.

“The reality is, it’s not always a happy homecoming,” according to Johnson who last year October launched Armedzilla.com, a social network for military members, their family and friends.

Very often, Johnson said, returning soldiers bear the burden of harrowing memories they simply can’t share with those who haven’t had similar experiences.

“The stress is extreme, both in the battlefield and in the transition to civilian life.”

Johnson estimates there are about 2.3 million members of the Armed Forces and more than 24 million veterans in the country.

There are numerous veteran and military groups and even social sites that aren’t DOD-sactioned, but until recently the defense establishment had not given its approval to the use of social media.

When he returned to civilian life, Johnson found he yearned for the structured military life.

He attended college after leaving the service but also considered re-enlisting. After discussing this with several ex-soldiers, he sought for ways to reach out to other military men.

I checked out sites such as Facebook, but found nothing out there specifically designed for military personnel, he said.

With Armedzilla, Johnson hopes returning service members will be able to connect with friends, family and like-minded folk in a safe and accepting online environment.

Built on the Joomla! platform, Armedzilla, enables users to share stories, videos, photos and update one another on family events or group happenings. Four months after its launch, the site had a few hundred members, Johnson said.

Johnson intends to move Armedzilla to a the site – developed on Ruby on Rails –, a Web application framework. He said this would enable greater customization.

Meanwhile, he is headed for the Pentagon this week, to discuss with officials the possibility of providing Armedzilla with an official DoD status.

Deploying social media

In a recent visit to the Facebook headquarters at Palo Alto, Calif. U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn said the military had to change its policies because it was losing benefits of social media, while gaining nothing on the security side.

To address the situation, he said, the department eliminated blocks on social networking sites but beefed up its network defences.

This change is producing a new openness in the military.

Lynn said the DoD now uses social media to communicate policies and news to a “diverse and growing audience”. Lynn said he has a Facebook page as do the other defense and military leaders.

There are 230,000 children whose parents are posted overseas at this point.

Many of the parents use social media to stay in touch with their families during these long postings, he said.

The first part of the program involves a massive education push aimed at the organization’s more than three million computer users. Users will be coached on policies and practices involving computer security and privacy protection.

The second part focuses on strengthening IT perimeter defense with the use of better firewalls and anti-network intrusion devices.

The goal is to eliminate 30 to 40 per cent of attacks.

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