A New Social Media App for Veterans Uses GPS Tracking to Save Lives

The free iPhone app can serve a higher purpose than hooking up online with the technology used by Grindr.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Aug 20, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Clay Hunt earned a Purple Heart and was wounded in Iraq before deploying again to Afghanistan.

When he returned to civilian life, he battled depression and post-traumatic stress for about four years before the decorated veteran shot himself at the age of 28, alone in his apartment in Texas.

It wasn’t until Hunt’s funeral in 2011 that his friend and fellow Marine Jake Wood discovered there had been three other Marines with whom they served living within a 15-mile radius of Hunt. Wood teamed up with Anthony Allman to create a free iPhone app dubbed Position Report, or POS REP for short, that aims to prevent vets from feeling alone and without resources.

“How do we prevent that from happening again? How do we make sure that veterans know they have a peer network they can rely on in a time of need?” said Allman of the questions that help form the app’s mission.

Allman, who is also an Army veteran, along with a group of other military vets, created POS REP as a social media network exclusively for veterans, helping them connect to one another and to resources they need.

“POS REP is not for civilians. It’s not for military veteran supporters, It’s for veterans only,” explained Allman.

Although GPS technology has been widely used in social “hook-up” apps like Tinder and Grindr, it can also be used to save lives, he said. Some estimates show that up to 30 percent of military veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is often coupled with depression and alcohol abuse.

Isolation can make you sicker, Allman said, adding that there is research that shows it has a biochemical effect that makes it harder for people to fight illnesses, making them more likely to fall into depression or have suicidal thoughts. Although the POS REP includes tools to help veterans find nearby health care or emergency services, developers hope the support network it creates will help ward off the worst outcomes of mental illness.

This “community” component is why there are no plans for a desktop version, said Allman.

“We don’t want veterans sitting behind their computers. We want veterans out there engaging with members of their community,” said Allman.

POS REP won’t show a user’s exact location (for privacy reasons), unless they throw a “flare”—the app’s version of a Facebook check-in. The app will show the general vicinity of nearby users, so they can find out about veteran activities in the area, or just track down someone to meet for coffee and talk. Each user’s default avatar is a picture of their military branch, such as a star for the Army, but it can be customized.

“We have a spectrum of capabilities,” said Allman, noting POS REP also provides veterans streamlined access to services that are geographically close to them, from employment opportunities to help securing disability benefits. “It’s not just a mental health app. It’s not just something you go to when you need help, or when you’re depressed.”

Say you’re a veteran who just moved to L.A. and are looking to find friends. You could use the POS REP app to locate people nearby, said Allman. Or you may be traveling and need access to healthcare. Anyone in the U.S. can download the app, but only certain locations such as L.A. have the “density” to be effective in this early stage. It’s also where the founders have had success building partnerships with veteran organizations.

They’re working to expand nationally with the 40,000 veteran service organizations throughout the country, said Allman, adding that many don’t have the capacity to go mobile on their own.

Although the app is currently available in all states, it is at its most effective in Los Angeles, where developers have partnered with the local Volunteers of America to expand their “Battle Buddies” program. This connects veterans struggling to adjust to civilian life with mentors who can walk them through the paces of finding housing, transportation, medical help and more.

And although Allman can’t share specific success stories from POS REP because of confidentiality, a Veterans Affairs bureau in Iowa has already seen its effects. Neal W. Jarnagin, an assistant administrator at the bureau, said he gives each veteran he sees his cell phone number, and if they have an iPhone, he gives them a POS REP brochure.

Recently, a veteran contemplating suicide called Jarnagin and after hours of conversation, agreed to meet for coffee. When Jarnagin asked the vet why he decided to contact him at that moment, the veteran said he was flipping through his phone contacts, noticed the POS REP logo, and remembered who had given him that resource.

“Now I would love to say that the veteran opened the application and searched for a helping hand, but I don’t think the veteran, honestly, had the energy to do so,” Jarnagin wrote in an email to POS REP. “He saw [the POS REP] logo and, to him, at that very moment, it meant, ‘HELP.’ ”

From here, POS REP will focus on building out the app in specific cities or communities where agencies are willing to collaborate. Having a concentrated density of users and resources is key to the app’s success, said Allman.

Although you have to be a veteran to join the POS REP community, Allman is encouraging civilians to participate in their Thunderclap social media campaign to spread awareness of veteran suicide. The effort needs 250 people to sign up by Friday to have an automatic message sent to Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr followers.