Veterans Collaborate In Virtual World

May 2009
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

The U.S. Military Veterans Center in Second Life island features a beach for informal gatherings and recreation.
Former service members convey experiences and support in Second Life.

U.S. military veterans are gathering in cyberspace to share information and continue the sense of camaraderie they had while serving their country. On an island in Second Life, more than 700 veterans are taking advantage of technology to stay connected and to find the help they need. In some instances, a veteran’s avatar merely may stop by to check on activities while remaining quietly in the background. In others, veterans’ avatars take part in group discussions, fundraisers and even formal events.

The island is called the U.S. Military Veterans Center. Five U.S. veterans, who believed that Second Life could be the perfect venue for reaching out to other veterans, created and opened the center on Veterans Day 2007 originally as a section of the virtual world’s mainland. Second Life was designed and is run by Linden Lab, San Francisco. These five owners paid the $1,000 fee to develop a Second Life space and continue to pay the $295 per month rent. In addition, they decide what is built in the center’s space.

As a section of the Second Life mainland, the original center featured a headquarters building, a chapel, a museum and several meeting areas created by Second Lifers Hondo Slade, Cowboy Wayne and Asdzaa Oh. Avatars who visited the center could obtain information about a variety of veterans programs by touching the various posters peppered throughout the buildings.

Earlier this year, the creators completed work on an individual island with the same name. The new island features a headquarters building that is more than double the size of the center’s headquarters building on the mainland. Service branch museums, a welcome center, a chapel, a replica of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as well as a hangar where social events will be held also have been created. The center’s island even includes a country bar where veterans can relax and talk.

To create a peaceful setting, the U.S. Military Veterans Center Island is a place of green grass, serene walkways, waterfalls, campfires and swaying trees. But visitors should not be fooled; fun activities also are available. For example, disabled veterans may not be able to drive a go-cart in the real world, but on the center’s island, they can hop in and maneuver about in a go-cart, sailboat or Jet Ski and even wind surf.

Dan Casteel, known as Nomad Albatros in Second Life, joined the center’s original three creators two days after the section on the mainland was established. The idea to use Second Life as a possible outreach to veterans was inspired by a CBS News report about their high suicide rate, especially in the 18- to 24-year-old age range; it was reported to be four times as high as that of the general population. Believing that this may be due at least in part to the toll that current operations are taking on the U.S. military, Casteel decided to use the virtual world as a means to reach out to veterans and offer them information and support. Although he originally planned to build a place for veterans in Second Life himself, once he found the U.S. Military Veterans Center, he knew it was a good fit.

“I didn’t even know they were there, and I just ended up finding them. I went there to tell them what I had planned to do. So they gave me a satellite building off their original building for my VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] post,” Casteel explains.

Casteel’s experience with computers began at about age 11, when his father gave him a computer, and the younger Casteel proceeded to take it apart—every screw, every cable, every card. When Casteel’s father saw what he had done, he gave him a choice: put it back together—in working order—or pay to have it repaired. Not having enough money to pay for the repair, he put it back together.

A U.S. Navy veteran who served as a cryptologist, Casteel jumped into Second Life with both feet. Now 33, he is a network operations technician for Lightower Fiber Networks, a subsidiary of Lightower LLC, Boxborough, Massachusetts; but as Nomad Albatros, he is one of the five owners of the U.S. Military Veterans Center. He serves on the New York State Legislative Committee for the VFW, which reports to the state leadership and lobbies elected representatives on behalf of veterans. Casteel hopes that his post’s participation in Second Life will serve as a model for the VFW’s national organization to reach out to veterans.

If the veterans center growth is any indication of how successful virtual world participation can be, the proof is certainly in the numbers. The U.S. Military Veterans Center began with 40 members; it has grown to more than 700 members in less than 18 months.

Casteel relates that the U.S. Military Veterans Center was founded on the mantra that all military service members know well: Leave no brother- or sister-in-arms behind. It was created to achieve three specific goals: First, to provide information and expertise so veterans can campaign for the benefits they have earned; second, to offer a sympathetic and empathetic, moral and emotional support network for veterans; and third, to use Second Life as an outreach tool. “We want to have an outreach program to veterans that makes us a one-stop shop: the foremost resource within a virtual world to find information,” Casteel explains.

Without a doubt, the ability to speak with other veterans about the benefits to which they are entitled already has been extremely helpful. One wheelchair-bound disabled combat veteran was searching for assistance to make his house wheelchair accessible. After reviewing the Veterans’ Benefits Handbook, a center staff member verified that the disabled veteran qualified for grant assistance. After contacting the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) organization, a group that has a presence in the center as well as six private islands, a DAV national service officer confirmed that the disabled veteran was entitled to a $50,000 grant for home modifications. In addition, the DAV service officer determined that the disabled veteran was eligible to receive another $11,000 to adapt his vehicle so he could drive again.

About every three months, Dan Casteel, known as Nomad Albatros in Second Life, puts together a beach party fundraiser for the center. As DJ for the event, Casteel plays music, coordinates requests and hands out prizes. 
“That happened very early in our history, and we said that from that point on, everything else is gravy because we helped one vet. We’re done. We don’t have to do anything else,” Casteel shares. But, of course, the center and all its members have gone on to do much more.

Information available at the center has been helpful in more subtle ways. Another individual came to the center seeking resources related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He consulted a checklist of symptoms available at the center and realized that he could be suffering from PTSD, so he scheduled an appointment with a counselor the following week.

Although the center cannot offer professional counseling, the owners are working with an educational psychologist from the University of California–San Diego to help change the way the military hierarchy views PTSD, Casteel relates. Military leaders may learn some different ways to help veterans cope with the disorder, he adds.

While the value of having a place to go and talk to other veterans is incalculable, Casteel maintains that examples of how the center can be a refuge abound. For example, one of the five owners is 100 percent disabled and unable to work. He comes to Second Life to spend a little time away from his therapy and other trials of life. In the process, he has found that helping veterans is a task that, because of his experiences, is easy for him.

“Service members speak a different language because we all understand where each other’s been no matter what area we served in or what branch we served in. It’s a little bit easier to have the camaraderie and be able to talk openly with other veterans and not have to worry about answering the kinds of questions the public generally asks of veterans,” he explains.

The center is achieving its third goal—to act as an outreach tool—by helping other military organizations determine how best to use various aspects of Second Life. It has worked with a number of national veterans’ services organizations, acting as an incubator.

The DAV was the first group that came to the U.S. Military Veterans Center to ask for help spreading the word about the benefits of using the virtual space to aid service members. A DAV organization information technologist came to the center, saw what it offered and asked for assistance in preparing a presentation to demonstrate benefits of the virtual world to the DAV’s leaders. As a result, the center’s members collaborated with the DAV’s information technology department—through Second Life—to create a pitch that would validate how the virtual world can be used effectively as an outreach tool. Today, the DAV has six members-only islands; however, it maintains its presence in the U.S. Military Veterans Center.

Making the connection between service members and computers reaches beyond Second Life. As a VFW member, Casteel is developing a computer lab in the real world. “We’re going to offer classes in résumé-writing, interviewing, job hunting through the Internet and a review of places to meet as well as places you don’t want to go because they’re a waste of time,” he explains. This free service also will be offered to Casteel’s community in Wurtsboro, New York, he adds. His background in information security inspired him also to offer lessons about online identity protection and the correct way to create passwords. Casteel believes these classes could be mirrored in the virtual space.

In addition to the DAV and the VFW, two other veterans’ organizations saw the value of the virtual world and decided to take advantage of it. Information technology personnel from the American Legion visited the U.S. Military Veterans Center and, after a tour, decided to add their organization’s expertise to the mix.

And Native American veterans searching for a place to go that particularly respects their culture and traditions also can visit the center for camaraderie. The National Native American Veterans Association’s (NNAVA’s) location in Second Life includes a number of features that are Native American-specific. For example, a dream catcher in the organization’s area dons a number of feathers; touching each feather reveals a different Native American story. The location also includes a lodge, which doubles as the NNAVA’s headquarters, as well as a bonfire surrounded by moving lights. Touching one of the lights enables the visitor’s avatar to do a traditional Native American dance.

“The biggest advantage that I see in SL [Second Life] for veterans’ services organizations like the VFW or the DAV is that there are no geographic boundaries,” Casteel notes. This benefit is especially helpful for disabled veterans. For example, the DAV video-streamed its national convention in Second Life. As a result, homebound veterans were able to log in from home, go to the DAV’s audio-visual auditorium, watch the convention and contribute to the conversation.

While the center is not an exclusive club, Casteel explains that it is a by-invitation-only group; a minimal vetting process takes place before an avatar can become a group member. The goal is to ensure that people who visit the center intend to support its purpose and not to harass members or disrupt conversations. In fact, Casteel recommends that veterans who are being harassed by other Second Life avatars come to the island so center personnel can help rid them of the griefers.

The vetting process is not extremely detailed, Casteel notes, because it is impossible to verify that an avatar’s creator is a veteran without requiring him or her to supply a DD214, a task that could be difficult in the virtual world. However, as soon as an avatar lands on the island, a center staff member greets the visitor and simply starts a conversation. Whether or not the avatar is truly that of a veteran can be quickly determined with the answers to simple questions such as, “Are you a vet or a family member? Where did you serve? When did you serve? What was your rate?” These basic questions may lead the center’s member to ask another member to join the conversation. This second center member would be someone who is more familiar with the service branch of the visiting avatar. By steering the conversation into more detail, it soon becomes apparent whether or not the visitor is a veteran.

“There are a lot of role-players who think they’re veterans in Second Life. We tell them that we’re not a role-playing group; we are actual real-life veterans. So we’ve had a few people show up who don’t talk the talk and don’t walk the walk, and we don’t give them an invitation to the group,” Casteel explains.

Once a center member is convinced that the visiting avatar is actually a military veteran, the avatar is given a tag that appears above his or her name. Several different center tags are available, including a tour guide, vet’s family, supporter and one for each of the four military services and U.S. Coast Guard.

Sustaining an island can be costly, but the five owners of the U.S. Military Veterans Center believe the investment in veterans is worth it. And to assist with meeting the cost, Casteel hosts a quarterly beach party. For three hours, members listen to music, dance and win prizes. Most partygoers donate 100 to 1,000 Linden Dollars to support the island, and funds also are raised through the sale of items the avatars can attach to themselves, such as T-shirts.

Encouraged by Eric Linden, one of Second Life’s creators, the U.S. Military Veterans Center entered Linden Lab’s competition for the annual Linden prize. The winner will be announced next month and will receive $10,000 or the equivalent in Linden Dollars.

Web Resources
U.S. Military Veterans Center in Second Life:
Second Life:

The Language of Second Life

Virtual-world environments often have a language all their own that evolves out of how people use the platform. Here are some important terms for new users to understand:

Alt: An alternate Second Life account. For example, some people have an alt they use only for business.

Animation: A script that changes how an avatar moves, such as dancing.

Avatar: The “character” that represents a user in Second Life.

Flexi: A kind of building block that moves freely. “Flexi hair,” for instance, moves in the wind.

Friend: A way of connecting accounts so that users can see who is online among their friends.

Griefer: Someone who engages in disruptive or harassing behavior, or “griefing,” in Second Life.

Group: Users can join up to 25 business, social or shared-interest groups. Activating a group allows a user to change the title, or “tag,” associated with his or her avatar.

In-World: Online within Second Life. “See you in-world!”

Landmark: A virtual bookmark, allowing users to save and share interesting places.

Linden: The avatar surname of an official Linden Lab employee.

Linden Dollars: The unit of currency within the Second Life economy. L$ are converted to U.S. dollars on the “Lindex.”

Notecard: A text file that users can save and share within Second Life.

Object: An item made up of several linked building blocks.

Pose: The posture an avatar assumes when in a fixed position, such as sitting.

Prim: Short for primitive, the building block of Second Life.

Rez: The process of making an object appear in-world.

SL: What many people call Second Life for short.

SLURL: A URL that links to a Second Life location instead of a Web location.

Tag: An avatar’s Second Life name and group identification that appears above the avatar.

Texture: An image file that users can save and share. Applied to prims, textures give objects their characteristic appearance.

Teleport: Process by which an avatar transports instantly from one location to another.