By SHELAGH BRALEY
BOSTON—When they take off their uniforms of wool and brass of eras past, the tiger stripes of Vietnam or today’s multicam fatigues, RallyPoint wants America’s servicemen and women to don their “digital uniform” and find their place in the nation’s largest virtual community created specifically for them.
“RallyPoint’s genesis was around the idea of serving one population,” says new RallyPoint CEO David Gowel. “We recognize that the military experience is unique, from its jargon to career progression, where it’s foreign to the civilian world.”
Founded in 2012 and now serving nearly 1 million active duty, veterans and their families, RallyPoint focuses on what they need—both in and out of the service.
Supported by a cadre of current and former high-ranking military leaders, the platform connects members to the community to address everything from advances in health care to advice on pursuing hobbies.
PTSD support is an area that RallyPoint is investigating more heavily, Gowel says. The number of veterans presenting with PTSD varies both by era served, and also site of deployment, but estimates range from 11 percent to 20 percent of all veterans post-Vietnam have been diagnosed. This number also does not account for unreported cases, where veterans resist treatment for fear of stigma or loss of benefits. And although veterans make up 9 percent of our population, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, approximately 20 veterans a day commit suicide.
This continues to shine a light on the need for improved services to solve an ever-growing health crisis among the legions of those who have served. Gowel recognizes the significant challenges that military members face, with both obvious and invisible wounds.
“A subset of our members I’m really interested in serving better is our population of post-traumatic stress affected veterans,” Gowel says. “How can we leverage our community to help those individuals get those services available to them?”
He says there are no clinicians on the RallyPoint site itself, but working with as many groups as possible that provide those services creates a direct pipeline of access through the quickest means possible.
“There are services that RallyPoint alone can’t provide—but we can reach members to support their various programs of PTSD and depression that come with some folks in military service. We bring awareness to our population,” Gowel says.
By working with such groups as Home Base, a joint initiative funded by The Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital that provides veteran and family care, RallyPoint can “help (service members past and present) with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. We look at, how can we help them in a meaningful way? The focus of our business is to help veterans and service members have more fulfilling lives, in ways they might not be getting right now,” Gowel says.
To create more open understanding of the needs of its members, RallyPoint hosts live Q&As with influential and experienced leaders who have the power to listen and drive change for those who serve, Gowel says. “I’m a private, I can’t just walk up to a general or under secretary and have a conversation.” But a recent gathering featured U.S. Army Under Secretary Patrick Murphy. “He basically said, ‘Hey, do you want to talk to me?’ It doesn’t matter whether you’re a veteran, active duty, in the Navy, anything—that’s the reach we allow.”
What started at the Harvard Innovation Lab as a “LinkedIn for the military” using members’ social graph to connect with their military contacts has evolved to serve so many other needs. But RallyPoint definitely still addresses career transitioning and something Gowel calls “the masked underemployment” of the military post-service.
“I think the biggest need I see is around veterans who see themselves as being underemployed. Veteran underemployment has been decreasing, but it’s masked. If I get out and go home or back to the hometown of a spouse, it may or may not work,” Gowel says. “If they hire me without knowing how to make me comfortable in that company, they’re going to know I’m not a good fit and I’m going to know I’m not a good fit.”
To shift that cycle, he suggests companies talk to existing veterans in their ranks as well as collecting the data of what they did while in the military.
“Maybe you had some who stayed six months or less, too,” Gowel says. “By looking at the data, maybe Army officers are not as successful in a specific role as a tech sergeant from the Air Force. You have to understand what you have. Then once you know what you have currently in your organization, that can help you go look and hire the right type of veteran.”
On the other side of the equation, RallyPoint creates open conversations among members looking for answers from those who have successfully transitioned into the civilian work force. “We allow for a community structure that might be like officer clubs and barracks discussions, like when we were in the military. But now we can do them at scale,” Gowel says.
The other services RallyPoint provides is a pathway for groups serving veterans, current military members and their families to find services they need. “We have 40,000 nonprofits now and we’re eager to find new partnerships,” Gowels says. “We want to build an infrastructure to scale. Where there’s value, our members can talk about it. There’s an enormous number of companies that are lead by passionate people but don’t have the resources to get their services to the right people.”
Gowel—a former West Point graduate and Army Ranger who served in Iraq, earned his master’s degree from Harvard, ran a tech company and took a seat on the board of the Wounded Warrior Project—joined RallyPoint as CEO in September, joining remaining co-founder Yinon Weiss.
He advocates turning the tables when it comes to how veterans relate to the civilian world. “One of the things that a lot of civilians tell veterans is to translate their skills and background in civilian-speak. We say talk about yourself as you are or were in the military. If you’re an 11 Bravo, talk about that.
“That way you feel like you’re part of the community—you feel like you’re wearing a digital uniform.”