Documentary dives into hotline helping veterans in crisis

By MELISSA DRIBBEN | The Philadelphia Inquirer (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 13, 2015

When she first walked through the maze of cubicles at the National Veterans Crisis Line in the winter of 2012, Ellen Goosenberg Kent thought she knew what to expect.

Goosenberg Kent grew up in Philadelphia during the Vietnam era, the daughter of a Marine who had served in World War II. An Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, she had already made two films about soldiers coping with broken bodies and spirits after returning home from war.

This latest project, however, exploring the inner workings of the nation's suicide help line for veterans, surprised her and the film's producer, Dana Perry. For months, the two women and their film crew visited the help line's offices in Canandaigua, N.Y., half a dozen times, spending long days eavesdropping on responders as they tried to stop vets from killing themselves.

"We thought they would be doing therapy," Goosenberg Kent said.

"But it's not their job," Perry said. "It's their job to get them safe."

"To deal with suicide straight on," said Goosenberg Kent.

On Thursday, the issue came to the forefront when President Barack Obama signed legislation providing more oversight of suicide prevention programs for veterans and expanding mental health services to military members as they adjust to civilian life.

A 2013 study by Department of Veterans Affairs researchers concluded that 22 veterans end their lives every day. Citing that, HBO had asked Goosenberg Kent and Perry to do a film about the center, which has helped avert more than 42,000 suicide attempts in the last seven years.

Their 40-minute documentary, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, has been nominated for an Oscar and, according to the buzz, has a good chance of winning on Feb. 22.

During a recent interview in New York, the women spoke about the film and its impact, on them and their audience.

"When we started, we weren't even sure we could sustain a film," Goosenberg Kent said.

Not only were they unsure what they would hear, but to protect the veterans' privacy, the filmmakers could not identify anyone who called in or record that side of the conversation.

Visually, the action was ridiculously limited, in startling contrast to the violence - recalled and threatened - offscreen. Day after day, the cameras trained on men and women furrowing their brows, pressing their mouths close to tiny microphones budding from their headsets, reaching out with each scrupulously chosen word to pull desperate strangers from the brink.

The film shows their fingers skittering over computer keyboards as they take notes. Their hands flashing signals to coworkers trying to summon ambulances or police or pinpoint a location.

The fugue of voices comes from veterans of all ages, haunted by memories of Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

One calls to say he's about to slit his wrists with razor blades.

Another, squatting in a campground in Nevada, reaches the hotline minutes before passing out from an overdose of OxyContin and muscle relaxers.

Yet another finally asks for help after sitting in his car for eight hours with a belt around his neck.

In one of the film's many searing scenes, Maureen McHenry, an experienced responder, takes a call from a 20-year-old Marine who earned a Purple Heart in Afghanistan.

"What's that clicking I hear in the background?" McHenry asks. "You're playing with the clip?"

She asks him to agree not to use the gun as long as they're on the phone, then gently probes. He says he was wounded in Afghanistan eight months earlier and lost a childhood friend in the battle.

"Did he know that you were holding him when he died?" she asks. "Was he alert enough to know that? Does that bring you any type of comfort to know that you were able to be there with him. . .?"

She listens a moment, then says, "Tell me what he'd be thinking right now if he knew . . . you were contemplating suicide."

She pauses again. "He'd kick your ass. OK. So. Sounds like he's a good friend. Do you think that you'd be able to get yourself some help for him?"

In the last few years, the incoming calls have more than doubled to 2,000 a day, said Janet Kemp, associate director of the Veterans Administration Suicide Prevention Center of Excellence, which conducts research and develops programs.

The documentary has clearly driven up the numbers, Kemp said, because "people realized that they could get help." (The hotline is not only for those thinking of ending their lives, she noted. It offers support with a wide range of issues, and can be just an outlet for venting.)

The film showed that the people who answer are approachable and trustworthy. Of 300 responders, Kemp said, 25 percent are veterans; many others have relatives who have served in the military.

"Fighting stigma is a big part of what we were trying to do," said Goosenberg Kent. "To show that it's brave, not weak, to seek help."

After graduating from Girls High, studying at Boston University, and getting a degree in communications from Temple University, Goosenberg Kent moved to New York and made her way into documentary filmmaking. Her interest in veterans' issues grows out of natural compassion, she said, and "massive curiosity."

For Perry, whose son killed himself in 2005, the documentary's subject was painfully familiar.

At moments during the filming, she was overcome with emotion, she said. "I felt like putting my fist through the wall."

Her son, Evan, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was 15 when he died. Although his distress was not connected to military service, Perry said, the plight of veterans touched her deeply and personally.

While she and her husband fought desperately to save their son, Perry said, they cannot help asking themselves what else they might have done.

"It never occurred to me to call a hotline," she said. Listening to the calls, "I felt angry and frustrated." She saw how soothing talking to a peer can be. "Why didn't I think of that?"

It is coincidence, they said, that their documentary is sharing the limelight with American Sniper, the biopic of former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who during four tours in Afghanistan distinguished himself as purportedly the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history.

While both films deal with war's psychological wounds, Goosenberg Kent said, "Our lens is different."

So is the ending.

In the final scenes of American Sniper, Kyle, having quieted his demons, begins helping fellow veterans cope with theirs. He is last seen driving to a firing range with a Marine struggling with PTSD.

That day, Kyle would be shot to death, allegedly by the man he befriended.

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 ends with McHenry on Christmas Eve, on the phone with the mother of a Gulf War veteran.

After getting the final divorce papers from his wife, the mother says, her son wrote a suicide note, loaded his .22 and drove into the Arizona desert.

With McHenry's help, the mother persuades her son to come home safely.

Responders do not always find out if the veterans they have counseled later commit suicide. But the VA has stayed in touch with those who called in during the filming.

"As of most recently," Kemp said, "they're all still alive."

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