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WASHINGTON – Facebook Inc. and the Department of Veterans Affairs will provide 7,400 free video-calling devices to veterans to help them stay connected to friends and family during the coronavirus pandemic, the department announced Wednesday.

Facebook and the VA are giving away Portals, which are video-calling hubs that require a Facebook account to work. The device allows users to call people from their Facebook friends list or through their WhatsApp accounts. They retail for $129.

To be eligible for a free Portal, veterans must be enrolled in one of the VA’s caregiver support programs or a geriatrics and extended care program. Veterans accepted for the Portal will get two devices: one for themselves, and the other for a caregiver or family member.

The American Red Cross is storing the Portals, handling applications and distributing them. Interested veterans are asked to apply at the American Red Cross website.

They’ll be distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis. The Red Cross said it could take four to six weeks for veterans to receive them.

In a statement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the intent of giving away the devices was to help veterans boost their support systems. The partnership between the VA and Facebook is part of the department’s PREVENTS initiative, which is geared toward preventing veteran suicide.

“Our goal is for veterans to feel less isolated through more communication,” Wilkie said. We believe this technology will help veterans who might otherwise be unreachable.”

Soon after social distancing guidelines took effect in the United States, calls to the Veterans Crisis Line increased. Many of the calls to the crisis line were related to the pandemic.

Lawmakers and veterans organizations have encouraged veterans to check in on one another as social distancing guidelines continue.

The VA said this week that the agency has seen a dramatic increase in veterans using virtual mental health services. The department has shifted more appointments to telehealth in order to comply with social distancing guidelines.

During the month of March, there were more than 34,000 virtual appointments between veterans and their mental health providers – up 70% from 20,000 appointments in February. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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