Veterans' hotline celebrates new lease on life

The Vets4Warriors program, founded at Rutgers University in 2011, has been touted as a national model of connecting veterans and family members in need with a trusting voice on the other end of the line.

The program suddenly faced uncertainty after the Pentagon stripped funding from it in a cost-cutting move. The hotline was set to shut down Friday, putting about 40 employees out of work.

State lawmakers, however, intervened, recently putting $8 million in special funding in the state budget to keep the program operating for another year, as well as to improve health-care access for veterans and expand a program for homeless veterans.

Officials said they plan to seek private funding in the future for the hotline.

At a news conference in Mount Holly on Wednesday, lawmakers and local military affairs organizations said the program helps meet a crucial need by providing support and mental-health counseling for veterans, especially those returning from combat duty.

"New Jersey has a very proud history of providing services and looking out for our veterans," State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said. "We had to fight for them. We have an obligation."

New Jersey has 437,600 veterans, according to census data. Burlington and Ocean Counties, home to military bases, have the largest concentration of veterans, about 84,000.

Experts say veterans returning home or leaving the military may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. Some have difficulty transitioning to civilian life or finding employment. Many are reluctant to seek help.

Every day, suicide claims the lives of 22 veterans, according to a 2013 Department of Veterans Affairs report. With about 30 suicides per 100,000 veterans, the rate is more than double that for the general population.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, who operates the Vets4Warriors program, told lawmakers Wednesday "that lives will be saved because of what you have done today."

The program was modeled after New Jersey's Cop2Cop program, started in 1998, a hotline that uses retired police officers to counsel other officers.

Based at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care in Piscataway, Vets4Warriors has fielded calls from more than 130,000 military personnel since it was started in 2011, said Christopher Kosseff, president and CEO. The program has four licensed mental-health clinicians.

The calls are kept confidential and anonymous, and are to be answered within 20 seconds. Most peer counselors are combat veterans, from all military branches. The help line is a toll-free number, 855-838-8255.

It can also be reached via Internet live chat or email from the group's website, www.vets4warriors.com.

"They can call us with no stigma. We're here to help, not judge," said Graham, who served more than 30 years on active duty.

A message from a caller on the group's website says his peer counselor "was compassionate, and listened to my whining. He may have saved my life."

Kosseff said it is difficult to provide concrete evidence that the program has prevented suicides. Anecdotally, a high volume of repeat callers suggests the program works, he said.

"There are a lot of people who just don't call," said retired Army Col. Michael Warner, former commander of Fort Dix. "We need to offer everything we can to help them."

[Original article]