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App links struggling veterans with nearby network of military friends

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Jacob Wood was at the funeral of a fellow Marine veteran who committed suicide in 2011 when he discovered just how close potentially life-saving help had been.

The two men served in the same sniper section during deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, but when his friend returned home, he fell into isolation and depression.

Wood discovered that on the day the Marine sergeant took his own life, three other Marines from the unit lived within just 15 miles. None knew the fellow veteran was in distress nearby.

The experience inspired Wood to help co-create a smartphone application designed to link struggling veterans with an informal network of military friends who might be just down the street. POS REP, short for position report, allows those in distress to pop off an electronic “help flare” so other users of the military social app in the geographic area can spring into action.

POS REP is among a wave of mobile apps created for the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder cases and suicides among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. These apps are creating a breadth of choices that may aid those coping with the wounds of war, but they have also raised concerns over the privacy and safety of veterans who disclose health information and their location through their smartphones and tablets.

“This tool is really going to be a game-changer,” said Army veteran Anthony Allman, 30, who helped Wood and co-creator William McNulty, also a Marine Corps veteran, get POS REP off the ground. “I hope [the app] has an impact [on the issue of suicides], at least by showing veterans they’re not alone. There is a community around them.”

So far, the app is only designed to work with troops in the U.S., but the designers hope to expand it to the overseas audience eventually.

Health professionals have long recognized the benefits of bringing combat veterans together for support and healing in groups, including the military social networks that have recently sprung up online.

The POS REP app provides an online social network for military chat but takes the technology a step further by placing users on a local map showing where other veterans and services are located through global positioning. The users, who can see and be seen by others, can also use the app to update service record information or show support for service organizations.

Allman said the app allows veterans to lean on each other and provide help among friends. The app developers hope to add users across the United States and develop partnerships with the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to add to the services listed on app maps, Allman said.

But worries over privacy and safety might hinder its growth. The app has already been criticized for potentially providing locations and personal data that could be used to target veterans.

Allman said POS REP users can choose whether to be seen on the network map through the app settings and only approximate positions are provided. The development team works with partnering organizations to verify that people joining are in fact veterans and is working to further protect the network from non-veterans.

The DOD declined to comment on POS REP but said security and privacy are top concerns when it comes to such applications.

The DOD itself has developed a wide range of mobile apps — some harvest personal health data and also use GPS — to assist veterans and servicemembers with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

Department apps include BioZen, which collects bio-feedback data such as respiratory rate, skin temperature and brain waves from users using mobile devices, and T2 Mood Tracker, which allows users to record changes in behavior and monitor their mental health. According to the department, the mood tracker application has gained popularity outside the military community.

DOD spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said servicemembers and veterans should be cautious when choosing apps for their mobile devices.

“With constantly evolving technology, like GPS software, it’s incumbent on individuals to make smart decisions regarding their privacy,” Christensen wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes.

burke.matt@stripes.com

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