One of the greatest challenges for nonprofits and others looking to serve or work with the U.S. veteran population is in understanding who, exactly, veterans are.
That's because "veteran" is a term that spans cultures, generations, age groups, incomes and regions.
And veterans differ wildly in their needs. No one would argue that Vietnam veterans, women veterans, Desert Storm veterans and post-9/11 veterans all should be treated identically or have the same problems or needs. It's even a mistake to lump together the post-9/11 group.
On the one hand sits an incredibly diverse group of people. On the other stands a nation wanting to help, but not really knowing how.
A new report and research tool from Purdue University's Military Family Research Institute (MFRI) is looking to fix that.
Last week that group released the report, "Measuring Our Communities: The State of Veteran and Military Families in the United States." It takes a hard look at big picture data points nationwide like employment, education, mental health and legal needs among veterans of all ages.
Researchers at Purdue have been working on compiling that information for the report for about two years, said Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, who directs MFRI.
But what's really exciting to her team, MacDermid Wadsworth said, is the veteran community research tool organized and hosted by Purdue.
"Our primary target audience is really the organizations that are working on behalf of military and veteran families," she said. "We know that a lot of the efforts are focused on families themselves, but we focused a lot on make the system for families work better. ... We want [organizations] to be smart about the needs of the population that they are working with and their characteristics."
To access the tool, users need to register on the website. But once they do so they can drill down into veteran community characterizations on a county-by-county basis. They can see veteran data by age group, disability ratings, unemployment and more.
National organizations already have a pretty good handle on the veteran population as a whole, she said. But smaller research budgets or just an overall lack of data means hyperlocal organizations have typically trouble figuring out who is in their community and how to assist them. This tool helps solve that problem, she said.
"We really do have a special place in our hearts for these local nonprofits," she said.