Remembering Veterans – there’s an App for that

You don’t just wear a poppy on your lapel anymore. You can download one for your iPhone and you can wear one as a Twibbon.

Social media is becoming an important part of Remembrance Day as a generation of Canadians feels more connected to the armed forces. The Department of Veterans Affairs and civilian charities are tapping into the ubiquity of social networking as a reminder to Canadians – and as a tool to raise money for soldiers and their families.

The Department of Veterans Affairs released an application in the iTunes App Store on October 27, its latest initiatives to promote active commemoration this Remembrance Day.

The “Canada Remembers” iPhone app started with a simple idea, according to Devin Bruce, the project officer for outreach at Veterans Affairs’ Charlottetown headquarters.

“It’s five to 11 on November 11 and you get this automatic update from this application that tells you that it’s 11 o’clock in five minutes: get to a local ceremony. You can look up a local ceremony and look up where the ceremony is and attend, even if it’s spur of the moment.”

The app is simple, featuring a link to Veterans Affairs, a map of commemorative events, a copy of “In Flanders Fields,” and links to the official “Canada Remembers” Facebook and YouTube pages. There is also a French version, “Le Canada se Souvient.”

Of course, both versions have the reminder feature.

Bruce said that, as of 9:45 a.m. on November 6, the application has been downloaded 1845 times – with 425 downloads on November 5, the first day of Veterans’ Week.

Canada Remembers Director Peter Mills said Veterans Affairs’ social media initiatives aim to have Canadians connect with veterans and attend ceremonies whether at the National War Memorial in Ottawa or across the country. Canada Remembers is the commemorative arm of Veterans Affairs.

The department began its social media campaign last year when it launched English and French YouTube channels and Facebook pages. The most successful initiative has been the English Facebook page, which had more than 300,000 members at the beginning of Veterans Week.

The wall has many short notes – simple messages thanking fathers, mothers, grandparents, and great-grandparents for their service and sacrifices.

The Facebook group has members from all age groups, however Mills said these initiatives began as part of Canada Remembers focus on youth.

The focus on young Canadians has become more important since the death of Canada’s last surviving World War I veteran, John Babcock, in February this year.

“We had a national campaign to mark the end of an era,” Mills said. “When you lose the last living link to the largest generation to serve in a major war you want to make sure the torch of remembrance…is passed on.”

Mills added younger Canadians have a stronger connection to the military today.

“There’s a lot more immediacy, I think, for youth now in becoming involved in Remembrance because Afghanistan is a hot war,” Mills said. A hot war in which 152 Canadians have died.

Mills remarked that the attendance at Remembrance Day ceremonies across the country has increased in recent years. Mills said part of it may be because more young Canadians know people involved in the war in Afghanistan.

The University of Toronto students who started the Hero Fund, a charity to fund scholarships for the families of fallen soldiers, echoed that feeling.

“The last eight years have really changed things, I think,” said Michael Ball, an executive director of the Hero Fund and U of T philosophy student.

He added that the idea people his age were dying and their spouses and children behind while he enjoyed the benefits of post-secondary education. Even though he didn’t have any close friends or family in the military, he said he felt moved to action.

Hero Fund turned to social media when it started raising money and needed attention. They built up a following on Facebook and Twitter then they took to the street – selling hot chocolate on the main street of U of T’s downtown campus on a snowy day in early January 2010.

“I always joke that we got more attention than maybe what we were doing warranted,” Ball said. They certainly got a lot of attention. CityTV, the CBC News Network, Army News as well as campus and local papers covered their makeshift hot chocolate stand.

“We really hustled on social media. We really pushed the message out there and it was something that stuck.”

The Hero Fund was able to tap into a network of Canadians who wanted to get involved by holding similar small events.

“Other Canadians have raised far more than myself or any of the internal members have by doing their own events,” Ball said.

It’s paying off. This year, the Hero Fund granted their first scholarship to Matthew Melish who now attends the University of New Brunswick. His father, Warrant Officer Frank Melish, was killed in combat in 2006. The scholarships are awarded based on an application that is considered by volunteers from U of T’s administration.

In the lead up to Remembrance Day, the Hero Fund’s “11 for 11” campaign has asked for 11-dollar donations to endow more scholarships. They’ve come a long way from having to Tweet for media attention. They have TV ads featuring the voice of Canadian actor and director Paul Gross and music composed for the Hero Fund by the rock band The Trews.

They continue to tap into their network of regular Canadians, some with direct connections to the military and some without, through the Twitter hashtag, #11for11. People post their acts of kindness and remembrance troops to #11for11 where they can be read by anyone.

Through activity on the hashtag waxes and wanes, people are sharing their stories. Ball said he found someone starting a get-well-soon card for a returned soldier who had been wounded when an improvised bomb exploded. Twitter user “JennAnnis” said she handed out fresh-baked cookies to volunteers selling poppies.

Many Canadians are adding a poppy Twibbon on their Twitter accounts. A Twibbon is a small icon in the corner of their Twitter photo.

Social media is helping people share these stories of small, personal acts and connections to Canadian men and women in uniform.

“People should be doing these things,” Ball said. “People should be able to be engaged. That’s what I think social media does: let’s those people get engaged and share what their doing and inspire other people to get involved.”

Links:

http://www.herofund.ca/

Canada Remembers on Facebook

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