The Defense Department is replacing a New Jersey veterans suicide prevention hotline with an existing Pentagon program.
Jada — she asked only her first name be used — is one of 40 veterans who will be out of work when the Vets4Warriors suicide prevention hotline shuts down on August 15. After that, support services for local veterans struggling with issues like PTSD will be available from the Department of Defense’s Military OneSource program.
“I think it’s sad because the program really does work,” she said. “People call in and they’re very hesitant. Some of them will say it’s for one issue but you talk to them over a couple of weeks and you realize it’s something bigger.”
Vets4Warriors has served 130,000 vets, active service members, and family members since opening in 2011 in the off-campus office of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Services in Piscataway.
Laura Seal, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense, said in an email that the replacement, Military OneSource, is staffed by well-trained counselors who “will provide peer-to-peer support.”
Retired Army Major General Mark Graham, senior director of Vets4Warriors, isn’t convinced Military OneSource will be as good as his program.
“If you’d ask me two words to describe it best, I’d tell you it’s ‘trust” and “confidential.’ A caller calls in, the call is answered immediately, within fifteen seconds by a veteran,” Graham explained. “Army, Navy Air Force, Marine, male, female…we have all of them, who served from Vietnam to the current era. And they answer the phone immediately and they talk to the person to determine what’s going on.”
Graham says hotline staff don’t just wait for calls, they follow up with vets to ensure they’re doing OK.
New Jersey’s congressional delegation is appealing to the defense department to let Vets4Warriors keep answering the calls.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) shares Graham’s concerns about the efficiency of the replacement program.
“Having vets talk to vets, having military folks talk to military folks, was what this very special and unique. And so seeing a program that was successful, there’s often this idea that you just don’t mess with success but unfortunately, it looks like the [Department of Defense] is moving to eliminate the program, thinking it can be adequately replaced. I’m just not confident that’s the case, and I have grave concerns about the consequences if we fail to have a service that is successful as this one,” said Booker.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Monmouth and Ocean counties) says he is worried that vets will return from deployment to places like Afghanistan and Iraq, and will feel isolated and unable to fit in their communities, with which the hotline may help .
“It’s just awful to think that you’re going to abolish this local program at Rutgers, which, you know has all these veterans employed, and has been successful, and replace it with this national hotline that may or may not be as effective, and certainly not as quick in response,” said Pallone.