Facebook Allows Soldiers to Tell Their Story

Every once in a while, you get a chance to participate in something that truly changes the way you view life. Six years in the Army has led me through many such events, but this week, I experienced it again, and it was facilitated by a unique and unexpected source, Facebook.

Facebook is a big part of Soldier life. Long deployments, annual training and unexpected assignments force Soldiers to leave their families on a regular basis. For the last several years, Facebook has helped bridge the gap between Soldiers and their families during extended separations.

But it goes beyond Soldiers. Facebook, and social media as a whole is helping people all around the world, and from many different walks of life stay connected. Facebook recognizes this and recently launched the Facebook Stories project. It’s a project that highlights the exceptional stories submitted by Facebook users.

These stories on their own are powerful, but to drive the point home, Facebook decided to fly people in from all over the country and bring them to Facebook headquarters so they could tell their stories in person in front of hundreds of Facebook engineers. Facebook engineers spend hours coding and perfecting Facebook, but their contact with those whose lives have been changed by the platform is limited. MTV was on hand to film the event and the final story will air in March.

Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, California features a "Facebook Wall" where visitors and employees are encouraged to write various messages.

Eight different groups flew to California this week and stood to tell their individual stories.

The stories were amazing. One couple talked of how they were able to adopt a baby boy through connections made on Facebook. A group of siblings talked about how Facebook helped them find each other after 35 years of separation. A neurosurgeon stood and told the story of how he was able to diagnose and save a patient simply by reading her Facebook status updates.

I deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom when my son was only six months old. I told the story of how Facebook helped me watch my son grow while I was away. I talked of how Facebook helped bring me closer to home despite being thousands of miles away. A fellow Soldier called in from Afghanistan and detailed how his unit uses Facebook to keep spouses and family members back home up-to-date on how the unit is doing. He talked of how he encourages his Soldiers to use social media to stay in touch with loved ones while they’re away fighting for our country.

But perhaps the most amazing story was of a former Army pilot who is currently five years into a battle with ALS also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This brave man cannot talk and his movement is very limited. Once a physically fit and dedicated Soldier, this man is now restricted to a wheelchair. During the first few years following his diagnosis, he said he felt trapped inside his body.

Through the use of a speech device, this former Soldier told the group of Facebook employees about how in the beginning, people looked at him with pity; they seldom took the time to try and communicate with him. Despite having full mental capacities, his failing body had taken away his ability to communicate.

Then, just one year ago, he joined Facebook. He began communicating again. He linked up with old friends and started to once again engage in impassioned debates. At the conclusion of his story, his wife stood, looked tearfully at the crowd of Facebook engineers and said, “Thank you. You’ve given my husband his voice back.”

A former Army pilot currently five years into a battle with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, uses Facebook to connect with loved ones.

As these individuals told their personal stories, I watched from a couch up front. I looked at the faces of the Facebook engineers and watched the tears swell up in their eyes as they listened to tales of survival, perseverance and hope. Our stories helped bring it home, Facebook is changing lives.

It was an honor to travel to Facebook and represent the Army. At the conclusion of my presentation I made it a point to say that my story was not remarkable. There are thousands of other Soldiers who have endured and continue to endure separations from their families. Thousands of moms and dads use Facebook and other social media platforms to watch their children grow. I stressed that while engineers at Facebook and other social media platforms may not know it, they are improving the lives of those who fight for our country, and for that we are eternally grateful.

Has Facebook improved your ability to communicate with your family? Do you have a unique story? Tell us about it in the comment section below. You can also send your story to Facebook by visiting this website: http://stories.facebook.com

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Dale Sweetnam (right) is pictured with Mark Zuckerberg (left). Zuckerberg is the founder and CEO of Facebook, a social networking site with more than 500 million active users.

This Army Live blog post was written by SSG Dale Sweetnam – NCOIC of the U.S. Army’s Online and Social Media Division.