Mark Casper is CEO of Tech for Troops, a nonprofit organization that provides donated computers to veterans and active-duty service members in need. Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, co-founder and CEO of MissionBox, talks with Mark about the work he is doing to use technology to improve the lives of veterans.
How did Tech for Troops get started?
The organization was founded in 2014 by a woman who had an ex-Marine living on her couch. This veteran was unable to find a job, penniless and homeless. She believed he needed a computer to launch a job search, create a resume and apply for jobs online. She started collecting donated computers for her friend and for other veterans who were in the same predicament.
What is the organization’s mission?
Tech for Troops’ mission is to provide digital inclusion for in-need veterans and their families and for active-duty service members who are transitioning out of the military. It is for the men and women who get out, think they have the tiger by the tail--but don’t--and quickly hit a poverty-level income or less. A lot of the tragedy occurs within the first 90 days because they don’t have savings or marketable skills. A lot of the veterans that we serve have been in poverty for years and don’t know how to get out. We receive donated computers, refurbish them and then give them to in-need veterans here in our training facility. We also ship out computers refurbished by our veterans to veterans nationwide in order to provide digital inclusion. It is a social enterprise as well as we are getting cash for the computers and then plowing that money back into the nonprofit.
Tell me about why you are at Tech for Troops. Why do you stay?
I stay because I love what I do. It is soul-satisfying. When somebody who has nothing finally gets some help and support, it is amazing what they can accomplish. Closing the digital divide for veterans and providing marketable computer training literally changes their world.
Who donates the computers?
Corporations and individuals. Our doorbell generally rings a couple of times a day and people unload as much technical equipment as they can. And we have corporations that contact us for pickups. It is primarily used equipment. We wipe it down, refurbish and distribute it. If it cannot be refurbished, we dispose of it in an environmentally friendly way. We use software called WhiteCanyon. If it fails the wiping, say at 99%, we take it out and crush it. We guarantee data destruction. Veterans are actually doing that work, doing that cleanup. They’re given training and they get paid.
And then, you sell these to whom?
Say a veteran in Texas needs a computer. They contact us, fill out the form and let us know their financial status. And they have a DD214, which is their “get out of the military” paper, or a VA card, or something along the lines that proves that they’re a vet. We have a sliding scale. The more you make, the more you pay; the less you make, the less you pay.
Do you offer training on how to use computers?
Yes, we do, here in our training facility. And we’re developing online training programs, as well. We will be providing computer recipients with a link on their screen that takes them to a ”how to” computer tutorial center.
Do you have to be a newly discharged veteran to receive your services?
No. Any veteran is eligible, as long as they are not a Bad Conduct Discharge. We mainly serve Vietnam veterans and up. I served in the Marine Corp from ’83 to ’87. I call myself a Cold War warrior. I never saw a combat, but I was ready to go. We’ve had actually more vets coming in from Iraq and Afghanistan, who don’t have or can’t afford a computer.
Does the military or the federal government support your work?
No. But we are working with U.S. Representatives Abigail Spanberger, Rob Wittman and Elaine Luria here in Virginia. They have submitted legislation for Tech for Troops and other nonprofits. I helped found a national alliance called AFTRR (Alliance for Technology Refurbishing & Reuse). The proposed legislation would expand our services and allow us to receive computers, refurbish them, and give them to in- need constituents—anyone in the country, whether they are veterans or not. Right now, the federal government warehouses anywhere between 300,000 and 500,000 computers a year. All this perfectly usable equipment is stored in massive warehouses, all over the nation.
How can people help your mission?
One thing people could do is contact federal legislators and put in a word or make a phone call. They could call their congressmen and senators and say, “Please get on board with this because truly we would change the country, we would change the dynamic completely, if we could put computers in veterans’ hands and, of course, in civilians’ hands as well.”
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that I should have asked?
We are committed to responsible recycling. We have recycled about 480 tons of computer in six years, keeping all that toxic waste out of landfills. And that’s part of our mission as well. We also just started a program called Give Back Box, where you can go online, pay $15, download a shipping label, and ship us your computer equipment. We welcome computer donations from nonprofits across the country.