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Suicide hotline debuts in Contra Costa, Calif.

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Recovering from a traumatic brain injury, the Army veteran told the suicide hotline counselor he had trouble remembering his birthday or address ... and with keeping his job.

His unit lost 16 men during his first Afghanistan deployment, and the 37-year-old Purple Heart recipient had endured two failed marriages, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and years of alcoholism. When an injury sent this vet home early during his second tour, he told a Contra Costa operator with the Veterans Crisis Line he had hit a low point.

Isolated and with no one to keep him safe before the nearest veterans' center opened the next morning, the soldier and the crisis line counselor — also called a specialist — decided he should spend the night in the hospital, and they spoke for another 35 minutes before police arrived at his Midwest home.

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On Aug. 1, the Contra Costa Crisis Center became one of six agencies across the country to help Veterans Affairs field this kind of call from veterans. Operating out of an office building, the nonprofit answered about 3,400 calls from all 50 states during the first month.

The agency now averages 215 calls on the vet line each week, for a center that already fields about 65,000 crisis calls a year.

Veterans Affairs launched the hotline in 2007 in conjunction with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. With veterans accounting for almost 20 percent of all suicides in the United States, the

issue of military suicide has drawn wide attention. President Obama signed an executive order requiring the VA to increase its hotline staffing by 50 percent by the end of this year.

VA spokesman Mark Ballesteros said the Veterans Crisis Line has received more than 665,000 calls since it started, and has rescued more than 23,000 suicidal vets. Calls to the hotline have increased by 35 percent in the past year, overwhelming the VA hotline headquarters in New York, said the hotline's national director.

"There's been a huge need for backup centers ... and Contra Costa is certainly one of the better centers in our national network," said John Draper, project director. "This provides an anonymous, confidential process for veterans to reach out and get the services they need."

The Contra Costa office fields calls on the vet line mostly from former soldiers, but also talks with active military members and worried family and friends. Callers are from all wars, from World War II to Vietnam to the current conflicts, said Judi Hampshire, Contra Costa's crisis line director. She even worked with a caller who suffered from PTSD after his ship went down in the Falklands War.

In general, veterans present Contra Costa counselors with more acute cases than the public in general, she said.

"There is a higher percentage suicidality and anger issues heading to homicidal thoughts and behaviors" with callers who've served in the Armed Forces, Hampshire said. "A vet that calls usually has more access to lethal means, and when they have guns they know how to use them."

Veterans are more actively abusing substances and are more often intoxicated while on the hotline than other callers, she said. And Vietnam vets stand out from the others.

"They are a very unique group and how that war was and how they were not welcomed back affected them," Hampshire said. "There was also a culture of substance abuse prevalent during that war."

Younger veterans come with complicating factors, such as PTSD or traumatic brain issues.

"We have had quite a few veterans who are dealing with PTSD related to military sexual trauma — especially, but not exclusively, female callers," Hampshire said.

The center has paid staff and about 70 volunteers, ranging in age from 21 to 70 and older. Among their number are a priest, FBI agent, retired cop, veteran and a lawyer.

"People who come maybe have had their lives touched by suicide, but mainly they are people who want to be really impactful," Hampshire said.

While most calls do not end with intervention, the ones that do often require help from out-of-state resources. On Labor Day, a counselor stayed on the phone for hours with a distraught 32-year-old Alaskan active soldier while a plane flew to him.

"I think we're really grateful and proud to be a part of it because we know we're a part of a special group," Hampshire said. "We feel like we're really making a difference ... and we're really appreciative that we get to help veterans."

Every time Contra Costa attendants talk to a veteran with suicidal thoughts they ask about his or her military history.

And then they thank them for their service.

"It always sort of surprises us," Hampshire said, "that many of them say that no one has thanked them before."
 

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