Helping New Veterans with the Resources They Need

What is the biggest change you might encounter in your life? Moving homes?  Changing jobs?  Your children switching schools? Our nation’s service members often experience all of these events—and more—at the same time, and all while experiencing the jarring shift of leaving military service. They leave a life of extensive rules and routines to embark on their next steps as independent civilians—possibly without sufficient resources or support.

No two transition stories are alike, but ultimately, each transition is a period of change that is at best disorienting and, at worst, leads to a Veteran failing to meet their basic needs. After serving their country, Veterans want and deserve to feel like more than a number, or a box to be checked.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) wants to do more. Thirteen weeks ago, the Digital Service at VA asked our Harvard student team in a Kennedy School Technology and Innovation field class a research question: How can VA provide the right services and products to better assist new Veterans?

To answer a deceptively complicated question, we turned to Veterans themselves, along with great people at VA, the U.S. Digital Service, and in a wide range of Veterans’ service roles. 200,000 Veterans transition every year. Based on conversations with forty-one United States Veterans and nine VA staff, we synthesized our insights from our thirteen week project.

Our key insight? I want to feel like a person,” seven simple words, articulated by Anne, an Air Force Videographer Veteran.

Team Members Chris, Ife, and Irene categorize Veteran insights

Team Members Chris, Ife, and Irene categorize Veteran insights

Team Member Irene draws potential prototype solutions

Team Member Irene draws potential prototype solutions

Our proposed solution? A personalized transition tool we’re calling Vetransition. By entering in a few key demographics along with their transition priorities, Veterans can better navigate the vast array of information and resources available to them.

To review and refine Vetransition, we put different versions of the tool in front of ten Veterans, to help us improve the design.  We envision this tool starting simple, without requiring any password or login, and with the option to get the personalized recommendations displayed also emailed, for easy reference.  “Nobody feels listened to or heard when they have to do some standardized form. The more personal it is the better,” explained Kevin, an Army Chemical Specialist, when reviewing the tool.

We also envision this tool growing increasingly helpful over time.

Next Steps: Moving Towards A More Veteran-Centered Transition

On May 1, 2018, our team presented our findings and Vetransition to federal officials from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the U.S. Digital Service, and the White House Office of American Innovation in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. We summarized our work and outlined an implementation plan for different touchpoints in the journey of a transitioning service member.

Vetransition Implementation Plan

Vetransition Implementation Plan

Our work is only as strong as our partners. From Veterans to federal employees, we’d like to thank so many people who contributed their time and guidance to make this project possible. Just as we listened to Veterans who were generous with their stories, VA listened to our insights and proposal.  The Digital Service at the VA and Office of Policy and Interagency Collaboration were essential to guiding our work from the beginning. We are so grateful for the opportunity to work with some our nation’s most dedicated individuals, and we’re especially excited to see how the work continues.

Chris Dylewski, Ife Famojuro, Irene Solaiman, Rebecca Schwartz, and Simon Jones

Designing Apps with Veterans, not For Them

Have you ever sat in front of a blank piece of paper hoping it will transform itself? 

As a Harvard student team in a class on technology and innovation, we had spent the last two months learning about the transition of military personnel from service to civilian life by interviewing dozens of Veterans and other stakeholders.

We had developed a concise problem statement: “How can the VA provide the right services and products to better assist new Veterans?”

But we weren’t sure how to take our findings and turn them into products the VA might adopt and Veterans would actually use.

So we started to scribble and draw. Our blank page became cluttered with ideas and solutions that we turned into simple sketches in Balsamiq, a rapid wireframing tool.

Irene sketches potential solutions

Irene sketches potential solutions

Balsamiq prototype of the Veteransition app

Balsamiq prototype of the Veteransition app

We then put our prototype Veteransition app in the hands of Veterans, to get their feedback and views.  Many of their initial comments were negative and it was difficult not to feel disheartened: how had we fallen so far off the mark?

We were struck by the realisation that we had attempted to design for Veterans, not with them. An essential component to the development process is seeking Veteran feedback—whether that be good or bad—so we can develop a solution that actually addresses Veteran needs.

Every Veteran has a unique transition journey. We are excited and motivated to keep developing ideas and coming up with solutions that make these journeys as smooth and easy as possible.

Chris, Ife, Irene, Rebecca, and Simon

The Challenges of Returning to Civilian Life

When he separated from the Marine Corps, Daniel, like so many other combat Veterans, struggled with the transition to civilian life.

In the Corps, Daniel fought, and was willing to die, for his fellow Marines. Mere weeks later, he was on his own, feeling ostracized from both the Corps and from the people he now encountered on a daily basis — people who couldn’t possibly understand what he was dealing with.

He was coming to terms with the memories of standing watch over his fellow Marine’s body in Iraq, and attempting to translate his Marine Corps experiences into a resume that a civilian employer would understand. He avoided the mental health counseling that was available to him, the kind that made him feel broken, weak, and useless.

Daniel attempted to commit suicide and almost became one more casualty.  His transition from the military wasn’t the only reason for that decision, but his story, and the stories of countless Veterans struggling to reintegrate back into Civilian life, has motivated and inspired us to make the process better. We are a small group of Harvard students that, in partnership with the VA and U.S. Digital Service, are looking for technical solutions to problems in the way that military members transition to civilian life.

Our progress:

Following the principles of user research, we have drawn on the insight and experiences of Veterans. We have interviewed and heard stories from Veterans and service members from across the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.  We visited local military installations and Veterans Centers — a big thank you to our friends at Hanscom Air Force Base, their Transition Assistance Program class, the USS Constitution Museum, and the New England Center for Homeless Veterans in Boston. We also engaged with private companies helping Veterans, like Three Wire Systems. We have mapped the journey of Veterans as they transition and built “user profiles” for the kinds of Veterans with whom we have interacted.

A Map of a Veteran’s Experience Leaving the Military

A Map of a Veteran’s Experience Leaving the Military

Next Steps:

As we continue to conduct research, we are focusing on specific places where the transition process is particularly difficult, confusing, or painful. Exercises like this collaborative brainstorming “KJ” (pictured below) helped narrow our focus.

Team Members Mapping Problems with the transition Process in an Exercise Called a “KJ”

Team Members Mapping Problems with the transition Process in an Exercise Called a “KJ”

We have identified three areas where we will focus more attention in the days to come:

  1. Process and Contact Problems

  2. Health and Psychiatric Issues

  3. Loneliness and Stigma

These broad areas reflect our continued commitment to leaving ourselves open to discover where we can make the greatest impact in our work.

We are excited by our progress thus far. More importantly, we are energized to refine these insights and turn them into actions. Inspired by Veterans like Daniel, we are looking forward to turning our ideas into real solutions.

Chris Dylewski, Ifedayo Famojuro, Simon Jones, Rebecca Schwartz, Irene Solaiman

Beyond the Uniform: Understanding the Transition From Military to Civilian Life

Introduction. At the Harvard Kennedy School, we have classmates who served in uniform in Iraq, Afghanistan, and conflict zones across the globe. Each has their own story of service: stories of pride, difficulty, companionship, and heartbreak.

Outside the Harvard University campus, approximately 200,000 service members transition from active duty to join the population of over 20 million Veterans on an annual basis.

More than a transition, this is a transformation. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) aims to help transitioning service members through this process, part of its larger mission: "to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan."

Enter a student team intent on furthering that mission. As students of the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard College taking in DPI-663, a Harvard Kennedy School field class on Technology and Innovation in Government, our team is working with VA to focus on the transition process. Our team members are:

  • Chris Dylewski (HKS MPP 2018) is an Air Force officer who will report for pilot training in mid-2018. He has worked with a number of Veterans’ organizations, from Blue Star Families to the Wounded Warrior Project and The Mission Continues. Chris is co-chair of the 2018 Harvard Veterans Impact Day, and Founder & President of Rise, a non-profit organization focused on developing community-oriented leadership skills in young people.  

  • Ifedayo Famojuro (College 2018) is a Junior at Harvard College, studying Computer Science and Government. He has served on the Board of Directors of the non-profit The Rockaway Youth Task Force, and acted as a Budget Delegate on New York City’s Participatory Budgeting Initiative. He is also a Teaching Fellow for Harvard’s Introductory Programming Class (CS50), and the Director of Internal Relations of the Harvard Computer Society.

  • Simon Jones (HKS MC/MPA 2018) from the UK, served as Campaign Manager for the Liberal Democrats in South-West Surrey in the 2010 General Election. He then joined the British Ministry of Defence, where his projects included monitoring submarine and nuclear projects; acting as the UK programme lead for a UK-US programme to build a UK communications facility on Cyprus; and acting as the Head of NATO and Conventional Arms Control Policy. Simon has set up an environmental charity and established a scheme to recognise the contribution of British Veterans of the Korean War.

  • Irene Solaiman (HKS MPP 2019) has interned and studied with the U.S. Department of State since 2012 in their U.S. Foreign Service and Critical Language Scholarship programs. There, she contributed to the Human Rights and Trafficking in Persons Reports. She served U.S. Senators’ press and media needs in the Senate Republican Conference. Irene has also consulted startup companies in the Washington, D.C. area on marketing and programming. 

Meeting the team from the United States Digital Services. On February 2, we met  with the team from the U.S. Digital Service (USDS). We dove into discussion, listening to their stories about how their user-centered design builds products that saves lives on a regular basis. One of the USDS core values, to design with users and not for them, will be particularly important to our efforts going forward.

From left to right:  Paris Martin, Rebecca Schwartz, Anne Kainic, Natalie Moore, Simon Jones, Ife Famojuro, Chris Dylewski, Irene Solaiman, Lacey Higley

From left to right: Paris Martin, Rebecca Schwartz, Anne Kainic, Natalie Moore, Simon Jones, Ife Famojuro, Chris Dylewski, Irene Solaiman, Lacey Higley

Getting Down to Work! 

Reading, listening, and understanding this community. In an effort to know and learn from our users, we have begun research and interviews. We are looking to develop a deeper understanding of the process: what’s working and what isn’t for Veterans and families. The graphic below, from a VA report on a Veteran-centered VA, has given us a taste of our challenge.

We are eager to innovate and “hack” this challenge. Thank you to Professor Sinai, the teaching team, and our collaborators at USDS and VA!

Chris Dylewski, Ifedayo Famojuro, Simon Jones, Rebecca Schwartz, Irene Solaiman