09/16/2013 01:51 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

Sometimes It Takes a Veteran to Understand

Editors Note: The Huffington Post was saddened to learn that Darren Manzella died in a tragic accident after authoring this post. "We were so proud and honored to have had Darren work as one of our responders for the Veterans Crisis Line. His humble nature, strength under pressure, and warm smile touched everyone who met him. We hope that sharing his story honors his memory and his outstanding service to his fellow Veterans and their families. We all miss him." -- Dr. Jan E. Kemp, Director of Mental-Health Programs at the US Department of Veterans Affairs

You learn a lot in the Army.

Deployed twice to Iraq and Kuwait to fight in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I learned the discipline to train for and survive combat. I learned the grief of losing a fellow soldier.

I learned resilience that stuck with me beyond the military, when I was discharged under the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy after six years of active duty. I had learned self-sufficiency, and was able to follow my own path after years of following orders. And I learned what it means to be loyal: After the policy's repeal in 2011, I joined the New York Army National Guard.

Today I am a professional listener. I answer calls from Service members and Veterans around the world to the Veterans Crisis Line for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A lot of callers ask if I'm a Veteran. That can forge an instant connection. Regardless of which war they fought in, I can understand where they're coming from. Not everyone I work with is a Veteran. But everyone I work with is dedicated to serving Veterans. Whether they're parents, military spouses, or grandparents, they connect with callers in all kinds of ways.

Some men and women who call are having a rough day and just don't know who to talk to. Some have moved to a new town and are lonely. Some are Vietnam Veterans, feeling hopeless, helpless, or angry, still dealing with the emotional toll of their service and reception when they returned home. After years of rigid military structure, some Veterans feel lost with no one telling them what to do or where to be. Worried family members call to ask, "My brother is talking about dying -- what do I do?" Other callers are crying so hard they can get only a word or two out. We'll stay on the line together for hours -- whatever it takes.

Listening matters

Two things Veterans truly appreciate are acknowledgment and gratitude. I'll never forget the pilot who flew me home from Kuwait handing me $20 for lunch as he thanked me for my service. I didn't need the money, but I treasured his kindness. Small gestures can mean everything.

The same applies with suicide prevention. Listening matters. People crave connection, wanting you to show genuine interest in their lives. And when necessary, ask tough questions.

Suicide is a problem whether you want to talk about it or not, so if you're worried about someone, ask. You can't prevent suicide by ignoring it.

I relate to Veterans and Service members using compassion, trying to put myself in their position. Together, we find a path out of the toughest challenges. When someone goes from crying to talking, and then they start to laugh -- that's satisfying.

A matter of trust

One caller reached a colleague here in Canandaigua who is not a Veteran. The Veteran told her he had a loaded gun and was ready to take his life. He told my colleague: "You have two minutes." Our response team felt the best approach was to put me, a fellow Veteran, on the line.

This older man opened up talking to another soldier, because he felt I understood. He served in Vietnam and I served in Iraq, but he trusted me. That was our connection. When you realize someone is prepared to end his life, when you can hear the pain in his voice--that's stressful. Things could have gone badly; they didn't. Venting his frustrations to me was enough to keep him safe that night.

That night this particular caller agreed to let us connect him to local care and follow up with him to see how things were going. Two weeks later, I called back to check on him. He thanked me. He was making progress. The darkness had lifted.

Those are the days you feel so good, so fulfilled, working with your team, using your experience and imagination to solve problems. Those are they days you feel proud to serve, on a desert battlefield -- and in a cubicle in upstate New York.

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

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.