07/23/2013 02:22 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2013

Reaching Out to Vets in a New/Old Way

I never know who’s going to be on the other end of the line or what the situation might be. That’s the nature of a crisis hotline. Every time, you pick up the call and open yourself to the most intense listening experience you’ve ever done because a life could hang on your response.

You have maybe a minute, maybe less, to establish a relationship with the caller who doesn’t know you, doesn’t know what to expect, doesn’t know what to do.  Usually they’ve gotten the number from another soldier.  Here, call this guy.

In 30 seconds you give them some context, who you are, what you’ve done, and then wait to see if they’ll trust you enough to talk to you.  Sometimes there’s a weapon involved, lying within reach.  Sometimes they want to turn it on themselves, sometimes on something else.

You bring into play all your senses, every part of your being, your past experience, leaning out toward the person on the other end of the line. There’s nothing like it. It’s an almost out-of-body kind of attention. And it works.

 Your job is to calm, to defuse the situation, like throwing a rope to a drowning man.  That kind of intense listening rarely happens in daily life, hardly ever in stressful situations, probably never in combat. That it’s so unusual helps dodge barriers to communication.

I’ve been handling crisis calls for over 40 years, building a skill that’s uniquely useful to a generation of warriors who are comfortable with technology.  Sometimes I think these sessions deliver a kind of therapy that would take much longer if it were face-to-face.  There’s an element of anonymity in a phone call that allows for the hardest kind of honesty.

It occurred to me that this is such a time- and expense-effective method to deliver mental healthcare that we ought to be making more use of it.  It’s perfect for remote areas, where vets have to drive hours to get to a VA clinic or hospital. The VA hospital in San Diego has a distance-therapist who uses Skype or the phone. 

We have such a need, with the thousands of vets who’ve returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the Persian Gulf, Vietnam, Korea and even WWII vets.  Can this skill be learned?  To some degree.  I think the most important element is an openness to empathize, a willingness to listen without judging. That it’s so unusual to have another person available to just listen is perhaps the reason it’s so successful. It’s a way of leading the caller to his or her own instincts to heal. Tricky, but possible. Do we need more of that?  No question.

I gave my cell phone number to a family friend, and since then, that number has made the rounds through units in Afghanistan, scribbled on scraps of paper, written on walls.  Here, call this guy. It’s such a humane way of delivering healthcare, an element we could use to heal our warriors and bring them home to us.