Fort Hood Adopts N.J. Veterans Suicide Hotline

The country's largest army base is getting some much needed help to stem the tide of suicides and dangerous behavior among its soldiers. The New Jersey state medical school is donating the services of its successful veterans helpline program to Fort Hood in Texas.

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Fort Hood is the country's largest Army base, and it recently found itself with an alarming problem: a steep rise in suicides.

So to provide support and help to its soldiers, it contracted with a veterans' hotline in New Jersey. Nancy Solomon has the story.

NANCY SOLOMON: Chuck Arnold is a large, barrel-chested Vietnam vet who still sports a buzz cut and wears a Marine ring on his pinky finger that could double as a brass knuckle.

But when Arnold eases himself down into his cubicle at the New Jersey State Medical School to answer a call from a soldier in trouble, this bear of a man is more cuddly than fierce.

Mr. CHUCK ARNOLD (Peer Counselor, Vet-2-Vet Hotline): Oh wow. So what can we do for you here?

SOLOMON: Arnold has been a peer counselor at New Jersey's Vet-2-Vet hotline since it began six years ago.

Mr. ARNOLD: Do you have medical issues that you're working on also?

SOLOMON: It's modeled after the school's other peer hotline for police officers. And now it's just begun serving Fort Hood in Texas, where 22 soldiers committed suicide last year, and many more died in accidents related to drugs and alcohol.

The New Jersey program has donated its services to Fort Hood in hopes it can replicate the success it's had reducing stress and suicides for New Jersey vets.

Mr. ARNOLD: What we do here is extremely basic. It's caring about people. What a novel idea. And when people find out that they can call 24 hours a day, there's a live voice, when they get a follow-up call, when they get somebody who does what they say they're going to do - I told this girl at 12:30 in the morning that I was going to call her back today and help her, and I just did.

SOLOMON: The model is simple, says Christopher Kosseff, who directs the program at New Jersey's University of Medicine and Dentistry. He says soldiers coping with the trauma of war feel more comfortable talking to a vet, anonymously if they choose. That helps them get past the stigma of admitting they need therapy.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER KOSSEFF (New Jersey University of Medicine and Dentistry): There are times when the issues exceed the skill set of the peer counselor, and that's the time where we need to have them hand it off. We always have trained mental health professionals available to do a warm hand-off of a call should it require that.

SOLOMON: Transferring the call to professional therapists at Fort Hood is what convinced Colonel Steven Braverman, who commands the medical center there, to give the New Jersey hotline a try.

He likes the idea of a vet on the other end of the line who has walked in that soldier's boots being combined with university-directed therapeutic services. Braverman says Fort Hood is trying to address everything from financial stress or sleeplessness to more severe mental health problems.

Colonel STEVEN BRAVERMAN (Commander, Fort Hood Medical Center): This is one mechanism or tool that we're putting in place in order to try to fit somewhere in that continuum, to try to keep people from getting into situations that lend themselves to risky behaviors. And that's really what we want to do.

SOLOMON: A new Department of Defense report draws a connection between suicide and the deaths caused by risky behaviors such as excessive drinking and drugs. New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg has written to President Obama asking for the $150,000 program to be funded federally and made available nationwide. Lautenberg says there hasn't been a single suicide of a National Guard veteran in his state since the hotline began operation.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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