VETS began as Veterans Electronic Telecommunications Services in the 1990s. Three veteran co-founders first met in the San Francisco area while collaborating in early tech startups Softguard Systems and SmallFrame Systems.
Richard Ward, Peter Lamasney and Jeffrey Loker originally had offices based in Columbia, MO, co-located with GeoTel Corporation, where Ward was CEO and a co-founder of the interactive telecom technology provider.
The concept for VETS began when Ward began searching for buddies who had served with him in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam era. He initiated a dialogue with the American Legion magazine’s assistant magazine editor Ray Mahon and publisher Dan Wheeler to discuss how to improve the Legion’s outfit reunion information. The three men quickly discovered they were all former Navy journalists and developed a close working relationship.
Before the reunion information discussions gained much traction, the nation’s attention was grabbed by the military operations known as Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In Indianapolis, Columbia and San Francisco, a new collaborative discussion focused on how the Legion, GeoTel and Softguard could partner to help serve the families of the thousands of men and women being called to active duty.
A workable solution was quickly created. GeoTel and Softguard agreed to donate technology and a toll-free number and the Legion would provide a national network of service officers, local posts and over 3 million members, plus promotion and administrative support.
The result was the American Legion’s Family Support Network. President George H. W. Bush, accompanied by Legion leaders, made the first call from the White House to launch the system. Over 30,000 completed requests for assistance were successfully handled during the conflict and the program was recognized nationally with several awards for public service.
The success of the Family Support Network encouraged the Legion and GeoTel to rapidly complete their joint project to bring timely reunion information to veterans. In addition to expanding services in the Legion’s magazine, National Adjutant Robert Spanogle approved the development of a pay-per-call service to provide reunion information via the telephone.
GeoTel had acquired Softguard technical assets and with the program name now shortened to the acronym VETS, pushed ahead to develop new information services for veterans.
Outfit reunion information expanded from the Legion magazine to include the official magazine of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, led by publisher Rich Kolb. In the process of helping veterans connect with their former outfits, VETS received numerous requests to help veterans find specific individuals. A buddy locator service called Finders-Seekers was rapidly created.
Eppie Lederer, better known to millions of readers as Ann Landers, was also receiving thousands of requests to help find military buddies. She promoted the VETS service in her syndicated column and the program immediately gained national attention. Lander’s staffers Marcy Sugar and Kathy Mitchell provided the editorial and administrative support. They currently co-author the syndicated advice column “Annie’s Mailbox.”
Disaster came to VETS in 1998 when all three founders were diagnosed with cancer. Activities were suspended while each man battled for survival. Ward was fortunate; he survives to continue the VETS legacy into a second quarter-century of public service.
In the VETS future are a resumption of reunion information and planning plus a variety of information services and products about medical benefits, real estate and homeownership opportunities, education support and financial security.