As an airman fighting in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, I never knew what each day would bring. One thing I was sure of: I would never leave behind a brother- or sister-in-arms.
I'm in the Reserves now, but still on the front lines. My fight these days is preventing suicide. As a Veterans Crisis Line responder, I spend my days talking to Veterans, Service members, and their loved ones seeking support. When I pick up the phone, I never know what will be waiting on the other end of the line. But as long as they're reaching out, I will be there to listen and care.
Lives hang in the balance, so the pressure is real. Each day I have to clear my mind and leave my troubles at the door. I prepare mentally and physically for the job, doing the Insanity workout in the mornings before arriving at the office. During a 10-hour shift, just like in battle, call responders go where we're needed. That might mean fielding calls made to the hotline, linking homeless Veterans with housing, answering texts from Veterans in need, or chatting online with Veterans in crisis. The calls, chats, and texts are constant. Every day, every conversation, I'm listening, understanding, making the best judgment calls I can -- trusting experience, training and instinct to help me connect to the person on the other end of the line. Each time I hang up the phone, I hope I've made a difference in someone's life.
An obstacle course
For many of the Veterans, Service members, and their family members we talk to, responders' voices are a lifeline. Some struggle with mental health issues, substance abuse problems or financial worries -- whatever it is they're going through has gotten to a point of crisis. Others are grappling with complex physical injuries or are feeling isolated and just need to talk. Even Veterans in the care of case managers, psychiatrists and psychologists -- men or women receiving mental health support from VA or other providers -- can still feel overwhelmed. Not only can we help Veterans take that first step to getting support, we provide an important resource for those already in care at times when the crisis is immediate. It's up to us to persuade callers not to give up, to show them that there's a light at the end of the tunnel. I tell them that just like that obstacle course in basic training, sometimes you've simply got to keep trying and they can call on us when it feels like too much to handle.
I comfort them, and help them figure out their reasons for living, the things that matter to them. My goal is to build a bond as quickly as I can, perhaps from thousands of miles away. We want Veterans and Service members to understand: No matter what, we're always here to listen.
The truth is, anybody can have suicidal thoughts. Anybody can experience overwhelming stress and feel there's nowhere to turn. If people understand that suicidal thoughts can happen to anybody, they can watch for warning signs and know what to do.
The job is rewarding, but tough. The call center is a special place; responders here take care of each other. As difficult as our work is, there are moments of laughter, too. We're a family that leans on one another, processing our experiences at barbecues and after-work dinners. We take care of ourselves so we can take care of our Veterans.
When I help a Veteran or loved one find his or her way, that's the best thing about this job. Just knowing I can help gives me a sense of purpose. My mission is clear: Never leave a brother- or sister-in-arms behind.
This post is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. Every weekday in September, we'll feature a different blog post by someone who is either an expert in the field, who has been affected by a suicide, or who has contemplated suicide. To see all the posts in the series, as well as original reporting, audio and video, click here.
If you or someone you know would like to contribute to our series, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And please, if you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans, 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255.