July 16, 2018 | ° F

Vets4Warriors hotline allows veterans to help veterans

Vets4Warriors provides a safe and confidential avenue for qualified and experienced veterans to provide support for other struggling veterans.

To help service members with unique challenges based on military life, the United States Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Office sponsored staff members at the Rutgers University Behavioral Healthcare to develop Vets4Warriors.

Mark Graham, director of Vets4Warriors and a retired major general, said as a 24/7 national support hotline, Vets4Warriors is designed to be available for veterans, active service members and the families of people who serve.

According to the Vets4Warriors website, the call center is mostly staffed with veterans and people who have had close family members serve in the military.

Graham said the key is to employ veterans as operators because they would be familiar with experiences such as deployment, leaving family or having military spouses.

The workers at the call center are veterans and clinicians, and their training teaches them about the effects of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

"It would enable an individual on the other end of (the) phone to quickly relate to the situation that the soldier or family may be experiencing, and they can provide them with a solid recommendation of how they might effectively solve their problem," Graham said.

He said the program had grown out of another peer-to-peer support line run by Behavioral Healthcare.

Graham said Vets4Warriors is tailored to provide help for service members who are struggling so they may receive help before beginning to feel completely overwhelmed. The call center staff, referred to as “peers,” discuss caller problems and attempt to help them find further valuable resources.

One technique a peer would use to help is to walk a caller through the process of applying for specific medical benefits or aid them in finding services to organize their finances, Graham said. A peer might also talk to a caller who feels guilty after a friend dies in combat.

Graham said one of the keys to Vets4Warrior’s success was how the program had more outgoing than incoming calls. Additionally, Graham said after a customer calls, peers will always call them back later to check up and make sure he or she is making progress.

To prepare, peers intensively train for two weeks before they begin answering phones and helping veterans, Graham said.

Graham said it made sense to start the program at Rutgers because the Behavioral Healthcare unit had multiple clinicians and a history of established peer support hotlines.

Initially, Vets4Warriors was developed to support the New Jersey National Guard, but Graham said the program was expanded in 2013 to serve the entire nation and all branches of the military. The expansion also included accepting calls from the families of people who serve.

Graham said this expansion was made possible by funding from the United States Department of Defense.

Vets4Warriors now handles all of the military hotline’s non-crisis calls while the Military Crisis, a toll-free hotline that connects Veterans in crisis and their families with qualified responders, takes calls from service members who are at risk for suicide, Graham said.

According to the U.S. Army MWR website, Vets4Warrior’s mission includes maintaining caller confidentiality and privacy.

Samuel Welch, lieutenant colonel and professor of Military Science for Rutgers Reserve Officer Training Corps, said that it was absolutely true that veteran peers could provide unique support to service members.

Welch said the United States Armed Forces works hard toward addressing soldiers' mental health issues and service members receive a lot of training and psychological evaluations.

He said one example of a challenge service members face is to understand how a person’s family can change while they are deployed.

Over the last 13 years, there has been a big change in how the army approaches mental health, he said.

It is no longer taboo for soldiers to go to counseling, he said. In fact, the military now encourages them to seek help. Welch said that unlike a private corporation, the military is geared toward helping families.

"If the family’s not functional, the soldier is not going to (be) functional when the soldier is deployed," Welch said.

Katia Oltmann

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