IAVA, The Ad Council, and BBDO approached WINS with a difficult but important challenge. Of the more than 2 million men and women who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, 1 in 3 will struggle with serious mental health issues, including depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

What insights could we develop to launch a successful campaign to help veterans transition back to civilian life, increase the number of veterans who seek help for mental health issues, and minimize the negative impact of PTSD?

Since Iraq and Afghanistan veterans represent less than 1% of the total U.S. population, and at the time many were currently deployed, WINS needed to build an organic recruiting network to find veterans across age, rank, gender, and branch of service that we could talk to. Using our own customized methodologies, we took advantage of social media, friend/family referrals, and IAVA member data to recruit focus groups in key markets across the country—and hit the road to talk to veterans.

Our conversations with vets were inspiring, and at times, heartbreaking. We saw veterans who hadn’t seen each other since serving re-unite by happenstance in a focus group in Austin. We listened to veterans open up about their biggest struggles and challenges in a room full of strangers (who had been through the same things). We heard about the challenges of finding a good-paying civilian job, the benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and the particular difficulty of many reservists and National Guardsmen to re-integrate into the civilian population without a strong support-network of fellow vets in their hometowns.

In the end, the research revealed that combat is a leveler, and that the challenges faced by returning vets transcend race, gender, rank, and branch of service. “The people that truly understand me are other combat veterans. Back in the U.S. that is less than 1% of the population. We were stronger together in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are stronger together at home as well.”

The communication had to not only come from vets, but it had to be authentic and true—with no gimmicks, promises of cures, or platitudes. The TV/Print campaign launched on Veterans Day, 2010, as did the registration-only website CommunityOfVeterans.org (since transitioned to IAVA.org). Total donated media support for the campaign has exceeded $50MM, setting a record for Ad Council campaigns. The site has been visited over 700,000 times by more than half a million unique visitors, and boasts over 5,000 individual members who interact in more than 200 groups whose topics range from Purple Heart Recipients, to PTSD Help, to Veteran Video Gamers.

WINS was the recipient of a Gold Ogilvy Award for advertising research for our work on the Community Of Veterans/IAVA campaign.