Soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan near the
Pakistan border in 2009. This year, more active-duty troops died by
suicide than by fighting in Afghanistan.
At a suicide prevention center in upstate New York, America's troops and veterans are calling in for help.
that help is needed more than ever. This past year witnessed a terrible
death toll from suicide. For the first time in a decade of war, more
active-duty troops have taken their own lives this year than have died fighting in Afghanistan.
The Veterans Crisis Line,
which is run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, gave me permission
to listen in as counselors fielded calls from troops contemplating
The man on the phone says he'd be better off dead.
Katie Geller, who answered his call, is trying to convince him otherwise.
thinking about those three small children that you just told me that
you love so much. And I hear you say that they might get over it, but,
you know, I'm here to say that that probably won't be the case," Geller
We can't hear his end of the call, but the vet tells
Geller he's lost his house, he's worried about his job, and he's had
constant physical pain since he left the service.
The best thing he can give his kids, he says, is a life insurance payment.
then what?" asks Geller. "So you kill yourself. It provides for them
for a little while. In the meantime, they deal with the loss of their
Geller tries to get him to talk about other things, to get him to look forward to seeing his kids tonight.
"What can we do to help you get through today, to keep yourself safe? One thing at a time," she says.
takes her half an hour to calm him down. Then Geller looks at other
ways to help, asking him if she can look at his medical record.
where this place becomes much more than a room full of trained
listeners. It's inside the VA medical network, so Geller can access a
veteran's records and try to help with every aspect of the case.
Searching For Solutions
The epidemic of military suicides is a riddle. More men than women
kill themselves, more enlisted men than officers. The number started
climbing in 2004, with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in full swing — but
suicide is high even among those who did not fight.
The VA has
admitted problems with providing mental health care. So this year
President Obama ordered measures that include doubling the staff at the
Veterans Crisis Line.
The callers aren't always suicidal. Some are just down, and they need someone to answer the phone.
know that you're having a tough time, but I do want you to know that if
you call us, you're not going to reach a recording here, ever," says
John Geller, Katie's husband, who also works at the call center.
on the phone with a former Marine. He also served in the Marine Corps,
and he works that into the conversation after a while.
the responders here are veterans. In one conversation, John Geller
alludes to that connection: "I guess there a reason there's two jarheads
on the phone today, right?"
Attempts At Intervention
The setup here sometimes looks more like the headquarters on CSI than a counseling line — especially when the team gets involved in what's called "a rescue."
There's one going on down the hall.
Mullane, one of the managers, says they've been on this one case for
about an hour. They're taking it seriously. The caller says she's got a
plan to kill herself.
A young woman called in to the hotline
and said that she'd already taken an overdose of some medication, and
she was thinking of jumping from a bridge.
The team here is
working to stop her. One responder keeps the caller talking on the line;
but at the same time, she's typing instant messages to a colleague.
Those messages include every clue about where the woman is calling from.
A third person calls up the police in the woman's hometown.
says the Veterans Crisis Line has done 30,000 successful interventions
across the country since 2007. But they can't save everyone. Sometimes
veterans call only to say goodbye or to let the authorities know where
to find their bodies, so their family won't have to.
Mullane says the team managed to guide local police to the woman's home, but she didn't want their help.
It goes on for hours.
team gets the police to go back to her door, and they help check the
young woman into the hospital. The Crisis Line team counts another
successful rescue, but there's no celebration.
Everyone here realizes a lot needs to be done to prevent veterans from getting so low that they need a crisis line.
Meanwhile, the night shift arrives, and the calls keep coming in.