Lawmakers applaud state rescue of Vets4Warriors hotline

 Federal funding for a Rutgers University-run hotline for troubled military members and their families will officially end Saturday, but the veterans who man the phones will still be working.

Thanks to an $8 million appropriation included in the New Jersey budget, the Vets4Warriors program will remain active and in full service across the United States and abroad.

"There are hundreds of line items in a budget. People don't realize there's a lot of line items that matter to people and that have impact on people's lives. This is one of them," Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, said Wednesday during a news conference at Rowan College at Burlington County's Culinary Arts Center on Mill Street to publicize the program's continuation.

Sweeney, who is the highest-ranking Democrat in New Jersey government, was joined by local legislators from both parties, as well as representatives from Rutgers and Vets4Warriors.

"It's fashionable these days to be cynical about government, but I'm here today to say that we have a lot to be proud of in New Jersey. An incredible service has been saved," said Chris Kosseff, president of Rutgers Behavioral Health Care, which founded and operates Vets4Warriors.

The toll-free hotline (855-838-8255) is staffed entirely by veterans. It was launched by Rutgers in 2011 and has fielded more than 130,000 calls from troops and military family members from across the globe. However, it was in danger of closing after the U.S. Department of Defense announced plans to terminate its funding for the program and provide peer-to-peer support through its Military OneSource hotline.

The move is expected to save the Pentagon $5.5 million, but was blasted by members of New Jersey's congressional delegation and other advocates, who said the immediate availability of a trained veteran experienced with the problems and stress that service members and their families face was irreplaceable.

"There's no other program like Vets4Warriors in the country. It's truly unique," Kosseff said about the immediate assistance from veterans. "There's no service that does that."

Fearing the program would be scuttled because of the loss of funding, Democrats inserted the $8 million appropriation into their proposed 2016 fiscal year budget. Gov. Chris Christie vetoed several line items in the budget, but left the funding for Vets4Warriors untouched.

State Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego, R-8th of Evesham, and other lawmakers said assisting service members and veterans was a bipartisan effort.

"Burlington County has one of the highest number of active-duty military in New Jersey. This area is well-served by this program, so it's paramount that lifelines like Vets4Warriors receive the funding they need," Addiego said.

"There's no partisanship in foxholes," said Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-6th of Palmyra. "That's emblematic of why we're here. This program is that important and will save lives."

The lawmakers and Vets4Warriors officials at the event said spreading the word among veterans and military families about the program and its assistance is crucial, as the military no longer may promote it.

Officials stressed that a veteran or service member doesn't need to be experiencing a crisis to call, and that the veteran peer counselors will listen and offer advice or referral services on any problem.

"It's a stigma-free zone. We're here to help, not to judge," said Major Gen. Mark Graham, Vets4Warrior director, adding that callers will always get a live voice from a veteran, no matter when they call.

Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg, R-8th of Evesham, and Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-7th of Delanco, said the assistance provided by Vets4Warriors was worth the state's expense.

"We have to remember there are mental health issues often involved with service. We know the pressures of war can bring mental health challenges," Conaway said. "It's nice to be involved with something that saves lives. ... New Jersey is again leading the way."

"I come from a military family, so I know families go through a lot of these issues as well," Rodriguez-Gregg said. "I'm very proud New Jersey has stepped up to fund this important program."

Although the state funding will keep the Vets4Warriors program active through next July, Kosseff said the university continues to seek private funding to assist the program.

New Jersey's congressional delegation also continues to push the Pentagon to reconsider its decision to drop the funding.

Sweeney said state lawmakers remain committed to ensuring the program remains active.

"We hold out hope the federal government will get their act together. But this program is housed in New Jersey, and we aren't going to let it drop. It's too important," he said. "I can't see New Jersey letting it go."

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