One of the most remarkable people I have ever met was a kayaking instructor. Three years ago, floating down the Potomac I found myself talking to a young man who had been rehabilitating in a hospital for a year due to two traumatic brain injuries that had left him unable to walk, with no short term memory, and a stutter. That day, he was leading a group of his fellow wounded soldiers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center down a river and making college plans. Each of the soldiers I met on that trip, young men and women who had volunteered and deployed at 18, 19 and come home with varying levels of injuries, showed astounding resilience.
I got the opportunity to join this trip through Team River Runner, an organization that partners with locations of the Veterans Administration (VA), Department of Defense, and military hospitals to organize kayaking programs for wounded soldiers and veterans. By the end of it, I left knowing that I had a responsibility to our returning soldiers and likely Bing could help.
Abstractly, I already knew that returning soldiers and veterans face many challenges. Concretely, the soldiers I met had significant hurdles in front of them. But when I reviewed the numbers, I was shocked. The unemployment rate for post 9/11 veterans is 36 percent higher than that for civilians. The suicide rate for veterans is more than double that of civilians, and more alarming still is that rate is growing twice as fast. Every 65 minutes, a veteran in the US commits suicide. The VA is backlogged with more than 751,000 claims, 60 percent of which have been pending for longer than 125 days. It's clear that more needs to be done for our veterans.
Team River Runner is small, but it has an excellent record of success. Kayaking has a therapeutic effect on the wounded, particularly soldiers with Traumatic Brain Injury. The most important part of their model is that its groups become teams: soldiers get the chance to reintegrate and rehabilitate together, helping each other navigate the complex search for the resources they need to heal. We started to look for ways that Bing could use its technologies and relationships to take some of the lessons learned by Team River Runner and scale them up.
We settled on an area where Bing has expertise: search. We would bring our background in helping people navigate the web as a conduit to helping people get better online access to information about veteran's benefits. 59 percent of veterans say they have little or no knowledge of the benefits available to them. It's no wonder. There are 400,000 benefits, services, and organizations available to veterans between the government, non-profits, and corporate efforts. The VA website alone lists 508 forms. 74 percent of recent veterans are interested in finding out more about their benefits on the internet, but the existing tools for veterans to search and sort through these are insufficient, and don't provide a way for veterans to support each other in finding the resources they need. In other words, this is a search problem.
We have collaborated with The Feast, an organization with a knack for bringing together creative people to solve tough social problems. Working with the Feast, we connected with veteran's service organizations including The Mission Continues, Team Rubicon, Points of Light, and Warrior Gateway to explore the challenges facing veterans and brainstorm solutions. We talked to executives from the Department of Veterans Affairs and The Department of Labor to gain insight into how we might contribute most effectively.
As a result, Bing powered a Veterans Challenge at the Feast 2013 Conference last month, where representatives from some of these organizations and other experts came together to foster innovation through a hackathon. By working with start-ups, non-profits, and the US government at The Feast, Bing helped create a platform that enables veterans to connect with their communities and the resources they've earned.
Internally, we are also making changes. In the coming weeks, results for searches on Bing related to veteran's benefits will improve, as we roll out changes to make the results clearer and more relevant.
I don't kayak that well- no one should let me into the water to teach other people. What I do is work at a search engine at one of the most connected companies in the world - both technically and socially. I looked for ways to get veterans what they deserve based on my skills and connections. I hope that you too are inspired to understand how your skills and connections can benefit our returning soldiers. Organizations like Team River Runners, The Mission Continues, Team Rubicon, Warrior Gateway, and Points of Light along with thousands of others are doing amazing work, and they need your support in any way you can - time, talent, or treasure. Our returning soldiers have earned at least that much from us.