Nearly a year ago, Peter Grant received a phone call from a man in Tennessee who felt like he had no reason to live. He had terminal cancer and felt like nobody cared about him. He went to a Walmart and bought a gun, but before he pulled the trigger, he made one final phone call. It rang at the VA Crisis Hotline Call Center in Canandaigua, N.Y., and Grant answered. The man was mad. He was upset. He was giving up. He told Grant he was going to put the gun in his mouth and blow his brains out.
“The first thing I did was try to connect with him that we cared about him, that we can get him the help he needed,” Grant says. “I just worked on convincing him that whatever he was going through, he didn’t have to go through it by himself, and that there was support for him, there was help for him, and that we would facilitate that for him to get him what he’d been looking for.”
At that point, the man calmed down. Grant contacted the police and other emergency personnel in Tennessee. They went over to his house and were able to rescue him. The whole situation ended in less than an hour, but it was the most critical hour for people on both ends of the line.
This scenario is not unique. It happens every single day at the suicide hotline call center, the only one in the country. The center receives about 22,000 calls every month from veterans and active-duty military members who have lost hope and are thinking about committing suicide. The center’s 275 health science specialists work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year to listen to those who cry out for help.
If you or someone you know is talking about wanting to die, call
1-800-273-8255 and Press 1,
Chat online or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support.
Veterans have the highest suicide rate of any population in America: 22 veterans kill themselves every day. What Grant and his colleagues do helps stem the epidemic of veteran suicides. They work behind the scenes to protect those who protect us. Most of the times, they are the only ones who stand between a veteran and his/her death. Since the call center was launched in 2007, they have fielded more than 1.5 million calls, making more than 45,000 lifesaving rescues.
Grant’s and his colleagues’ stories are being told in an HBO documentary, "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1," that just won an Oscar last weekend. For men and women of Canandaigua, this is an ultimate nod for the kind of job that very few people know of.
“I am very proud of the people I have worked with for five and a half years. I think that kind of national recognition is long overdue,” says Grant, who is also vice president of AFGE Local 3306 which represents call center employees. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into those situations [where someone is putting a gun in his mouth] and not just me but all of us. That’s just what we do. And then we go home and do it again the next day.”
Responders care deeply about veterans who call in for help. In the documentary, first aired in late 2013, a crisis line staffer tries to convince a former Marine not to kill himself by reminding him of his five children who wouldn’t have a father. Other staffers tried to track down a sailor who called in but hung up before they could identify him. They had to work with the phone company and base officers to locate the caller.
But like any stressful job, it’s taking its toll on the responders, some of whom have to ask to be assigned to another position for a few months to reenergize before returning to making a difference in another person’s life again. It takes a special kind of person to do this kind of work, and AFGE salutes every single one of them.
“Day in day out, our dedicated employees go to work with the task of saving veterans' lives. I hope that films such as this will help shed a light on the battles veterans face when they return home and the necessary services provided by our VA employees,” says AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee.