The Civilian-Military Divide: Supporting Service Members and Their Families

The Civilian-Military Divide: Supporting Service Members and Their Families

Evolving Industry

The civilian-military divide has been an unfortunate cultural barrier between American service members’ families and civilian communities for decades. 

Yet nonprofits like Blue Star Families, a leading military support organization, are at the forefront of providing essential support through innovative digital solutions. 

Blue Star’s Executive Vice President of Digital Innovation, Ryan Callahan, chatted with us about the organization's impactful initiatives and how they are leveraging technology to make a difference.

Ryan talked with us about:

  • The typical daily challenges military families face
  • Translating corporate marketing to a military nonprofit
  • How Veterans Affairs is leading the way in innovation

The Daily Challenges Brought By the Civilian-Military Divide

American military families experience significant upheaval with each redeployment, which typically occurs every two to three years. 

As Ryan, who grew up as the son of a U.S. Marine, told us, this constant mobility brings a host of challenges. 

“With moving comes potentially seeking out a new job, uprooting your kids from their school system, and being able to connect and feel welcome in a new community,” he said.

Stable employment is perhaps the biggest hurdle for military spouses. In fact, their unemployment rate is one of the highest of any demographic in the country — about 21%.

“I work with military spouses every day, and they're resilient because they have to move so often,” Ryan said. “They're just hardworking people who love our country, and they are part of the mission.”  

To address these challenges, Blue Star Families has launched several initiatives. For example, Blue Star partnered with Hiring Our Heroes to establish The 4+1 Commitment.

Ryan told us that the 4+1 Commitment aims to reduce military spouse unemployment by promoting job transferability, remote work, and paid leave during a permanent change of station (PCS).

“Employers can basically adopt one of these things that can help make military spouses' lives a little bit easier.”


How Corporate Marketing Techniques Translate to Nonprofits

Like many before him, Ryan's marketing journey didn’t start at a nonprofit.

“I worked for an advertising agency that specialized in remarketing and retargeting. From there, I really got to see how the whole digital ecosystem works,” he said.

Transitioning from corporate marketing to a nonprofit like Blue Star Families involves leaning on similar principles but with a deeper, mission-driven purpose.

“I jumped at the opportunity because it was very rare where you could combine what I do… with a passion for helping the military community,” Ryan said.

At Blue Star Families, Ryan and his team use data-driven strategies to focus their efforts effectively. 

One critical tool for uncovering truths about military family life that helps guide their initiatives is The Military Family Lifestyle Survey.

Ryan said this data has unlocked incredible insights, like the fact that about 70% of military families in the U.S. live in a civilian community, not on a military base.

“Our survey data helps us hone in on specific areas, like welcoming military families into their neighborhood,” Ryan noted.

They’ve also built partnerships that have expanded their reach, including a collaboration with Harvard University that focuses on suicide prevention among veterans.

“We trained an AI algorithm that did natural language processing amongst our public posts to detect the risk of suicidal ideations,” Ryan said. “And that software has [undoubtedly] saved lives.”


Innovative Approaches Inspired by Veterans Affairs

Despite a dubious reputation, Ryan argued that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has long been a leader in innovation. Furthermore, Blue Star Families is leveraging some of the VA’s ideas to enhance their own initiatives.

Ryan highlighted the VA’s use of virtual reality (VR) for training employees on patient experiences as a prime example of their forward-thinking approach.

“The VA has [VR] for their employees to actually sit through your average appointment,” he explained. “It’s really built so the employees have compassion for who they serve, as well.”

Blue Star Families is implementing similar ideas to better serve military families, such as human-centered design, for which Ryan also credited the VA.

“The VA was the first government entity to really prop that up,” he stated. “The VA [also] started the Veterans Experience Office, and I believe five government entities now have a chief veteran experience officer. That was all around human-centered design and how we can put the consumer at the center of our attention in order to be able to serve them better.”

Of course, Blue Star Families has responded to other pain points that the VA or other government entities have not addressed.  

The organization’s Blue Star Neighborhood platform, the largest of its kind, connects military families to each other, resources, and other helpful information.

“We built a content strategy around social media [so] we understand what military families are engaging with, and we're able to then utilize what they are engaging with outside of the platform,” Ryan said. “We use those discussions to get them to come discuss it with us.”

By drawing on these modern methods, Blue Star Families continues to enhance their support systems, ensuring military families receive the comprehensive assistance they deserve.

Craving more? You can find this interview and many more by subscribing to Evolving Industry on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or here.

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