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Serving veterans at a distance

How virtual programs can create connection 


By David Cain

Like most organizations, my teammates and I at Wounded Warrior Project have experienced unprecedented challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Our mission is to honor and empower America’s post-9/11 wounded veterans and their families. Through free programs and connection, we have historically delivered much of this support in person.

When we made the difficult decision to suspend all in-person programming in March, we knew the road ahead would be tough. But we also knew warriors needed our support, now more than ever. 

We viewed the circumstances of the crisis as not only a challenge, but an opportunity to innovate, learn, and forge new pathways for engagement. A few months later, I’m proud to tell you about how we’ve responded to the pandemic and the lessons we’ve learned.

With more than 700 employees in more than 20 cities in the U.S. and Germany, we’ve remained agile in delivering virtual opportunities for socialization and health. 

For example, more than 6,000 warriors and their family members have participated in virtual events and warrior-led support groups since we suspended in-person programming.

In May, we virtually hosted our fifth annual Warrior Ball for about 50 warriors and their loved ones in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. From the comfort of their homes, attendees dressed for the occasionpreviously held in Pittsburgh — and enjoyed the typical aspects of a military ball. The event included the performance of a color guard, playing of the national anthem and “Taps,” and dinner via electronic gift cards to local restaurants and food delivery services. The event also honored warriors during a virtual ceremony and provided online engagement opportunities with other community partners,

Also in May,  we hosted our largest female veteran event ever, with 50 female warriors coming together for a night of Call of Duty and other video games. 

This engagement proves how useful video game platforms are in helping veterans connect. Using platforms such as Discord and Twitch, warriors can engage with each other regardless of their injuries and free of any judgment. 

In addition to the Warrior Ball and gaming, we’ve engaged warriors and their families through virtual mental health workshops, online physical health and wellness challenges, and telehealth options to help reduce stress, manage anxiety, and build resilience. 

As part of a campaign called Operation Check-In, we are reaching out to nearly 40,000 warriors and their family members who may be experiencing additional stress during the pandemic. This initiative has helped direct more than 850 warriors to meet their most pressing needs. Our programs offering telephonic care, benefits services, and veteran employment help are available virtually and remain unaffected.

The COVID-19 crisis has illuminated new possibilities for virtual programming. Among the more than 6,000 warriors and family members who have participated in this programming, 92% say it has helped relieve pandemic-related stress. 

The pandemic has also shown us that virtual programming is not only a backup, but a viable option, no matter the circumstances. Every warrior’s journey is different, and it’s incumbent upon organizations like ours to meet warriors where they are. 

Our most recent annual survey — released in October 2019 — found nearly three in four warriors feel isolated from others at least some of the time. For these individuals, a virtual gaming event or physical health challenge may be a better option to ease them into in-person engagements. For others, an in-person mental health workshop or career counseling session may be the more appropriate fit, when safe to attend.

The pandemic has taught us many things, but perhaps most important is that the vehicle for support is less important than the support and outcome themselves. So, if we can provide more options that remind warriors they’re not alone, we feel confident we can reach more veterans and strive further to fulfill our mission.

David Cain is alumni regional director for the Wounded Warrior Project in Pittsburgh. He leads teams in this region to organize and hold connection events for veterans and their families. Wounded Warrior Project is a nonprofit with locations across the country.

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