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For veterans in crisis, a lifeline

By Laurie Ure, CNN Pentagon Producer
Angela Price is one of 20 trained responders who help veterans in need 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Angela Price is one of 20 trained responders who help veterans in need 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Many hot line callers are young vets of Iraq, Afghanistan wars struggling with reintegration
  • Some call for info on medical, mental health services; others call as a last resort
  • Center emerged from criticism that VA not properly responding to vets in crisis
  • Hot line's number is 800-273-8255; chat line available at

Canandaigua, New York (CNN) -- "Can you say that again? You put a bullet through the wall in your house?"

Angela Price begins this evening at work like any, listening to troubled veterans in need of a sympathetic ear or immediate help.

She reaches for a pen and paper. She's a trained responder for the Veterans Affairs Department's National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the upstate New York town of Canandaigua.

She asks a series of questions: "Where's the gun at now?... OK, so the gun is nowhere near you? ... OK, I'm glad that you're safe," she says, somewhat relieved but still concerned about the caller.

Price is one of some 20 responders, counselors, social workers and health tech assistants staffing 15 phone lines and three chat lines at the center at any given time.

She talks with the caller for 45 minutes. He shot a bullet into the wall of his house and then went for a drive. She is able to coax him to pull over, calm him down, and arrange for follow-up care.

Most of the callers want information regarding mental health and other medical services available to them provided at their local VA hospitals. But for others, the call they're making is a last resort.

Each year, more than 30,000 people kill themselves, 20 percent of them veterans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's 18 veteran suicides a day.

Every call presents another opportunity for the hot line responders to try to prevent another tragedy.

The crisis center, staffed around the clock seven days a week, opened in July 2007, largely borne from widespread criticism that the department was not responding adequately to veterans in crisis.

Janet Kemp, the Veterans Administration Suicide Prevention Coordinator, says the phones haven't stopped ringing since the hot line's inception.

"It's about being able to provide them with immediate assistance, immediate resources, appointments. It assures that we're not going to let them drop through the cracks after they hang up the phone," Kemp says.

Before the VA suicide prevention program began, that wasn't always the case.

Jim and Marianne Schulze told CNN in early 2007 that their son Jonathan, an Iraq combat veteran, killed himself in January of that year, after being told he was No. 26 on a waiting list to get checked into a VA hospital. The Schulzes said their son had been suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder for nearly two years.

He died with an extension cord wrapped around his neck, a picture of his daughter by his side, they said.

Video: Suicide hotline for veterans

Six months later, the VA Suicide Prevention Lifeline opened. To date, the crisis center has received almost 250,000 calls.

"The health techs assist the counselors in getting the person the services they need at the time," Kemp says. "If they need emergency services or information, the health techs can pick that up, and find the person who can help them in their local area, and make those connections."

If necessary, the center arranges an emergency rescue, or in less dire circumstances, a wellness checkup at the caller's home. The center also follows up the next day, according to Kemp.

The 2010 hot line budget is more than $15 million, including staffing, phone and contract costs and more than $4 million for public messaging campaigns, according to the VA.

The center's newest feature is a chat line for those who prefer computer-oriented communication, especially young vets such as those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Since that's been open, we've talked to several thousand people over the chat and have been able to facilitate some rescues through that service."

Chat counselor Rich Barham recalls an incident while chatting with a Navy vet who barricaded himself in his house, with two children asleep upstairs, as he suffered flashbacks from Iraq.

Barham sent help.

"When the police broke in, I heard he had a gun, and I was hoping bad things weren't going to happen to him," Barham says. "We were able to get his wife on the phone, and he was taken to the hospital and she was able to come home to take care of the kids."

Hot line responder Christopher Maginn is in the Army Reserves, and he just returned from serving in Afghanistan.

"For me, it's kind of hitting two birds with one stone, because I get to work with guys that have worn the uniform, and I still wear the uniform today, so, it's always meant a lot to me to work here," says Maginn.

Many callers are recent Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who struggle with reintegration, he said. Often, they're too proud to pick up a phone and ask for help.

The main goal is "to listen to them, and to validate what they're going through, and provide them services," he said.

Kemp says it's all in an important day's work.

"I feel lots of times it's their last hope, their last chance, and if we can provide that little bit of hope, and get them to realize that they called and there are options," says Kemp. "It's an amazing feeling."

The phone number for the hot line is 800-273-TALK (8255). The chat line is at