National Guard Unveils Peer Hotline
By Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. John Orrell
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 13, 2011 – The National Guard unveiled its Vets4Warriors service members' counseling program at a Capitol Hill ceremony today.
Vets4Warriors is a toll-free, peer-to-peer counseling hotline that provides Guard members and reserve component members with the ability to speak with counselors on the phone or online.
The counselors are former service members who can provide a wide variety of tools to help today's service members fight the fight on the front lines and the home front, said Army Col. Gregg Bliss, the Army National Guard's soldiers and families support division chief.
The hotline enables members of any reserve component to call the center 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week, Bliss said, to discuss any issues, challenges or problems they may have with a peer counselor.
Having a program dedicated to strictly anonymous, peer-to-peer counseling is a key step in letting people know there's no stigma in asking for help, Bliss said.
"You have got to be open, honest and candid if you're having challenges, and share them with somebody who you believe is there or willing to support you," he said. "We expect most of our soldiers, at some point and time in their career, to have some challenges that are bigger than themselves and the only real thing that we ask you to do is acknowledge that."
Once the service member reaches out to Vets4Warriors, the counselor will try to match them to any of the resources available.
The program, to be run by the Army National Guard, will be based at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark, N.J., which has an extensive background in helplines. The university created a similar program designed for law enforcement officers in New Jersey.
"The past experiences and research … [shows] that peer support is a very effective way of really helping people decompress or deal with issues or resolve challenges," Bliss said. "There's an inherent understanding of what the individual may be going through, plus you have the empathy and the mutual camaraderie when talking to a peer or someone with a similar background or experiences.
"We think this is a great way of doing it — kind of leveraging the soldier-to-soldier model … to develop a more structured peer-to-peer program."
The helpline will be staffed with people selected for their counseling skills who are willing to share their backgrounds and experiences to help service members resolve their problems more effectively.
Bliss said Vets4Warriors is not a suicide prevention hotline.
"This is not considered a suicide prevention hotline, nor is intended to provide clinical behavioral health services," he said. "This is just a hotline you can call, as a service member, and talk to somebody with a comparable background."
Service members can talk to the counselors about a variety of topics and not have to worry about their privacy, Bliss said.
"It had to be anonymous, it had to be a relationship between the service members and their peer counselor," Bliss said. "And while [it is] encouraged you utilize your peer support network and your family and your chain of command, it's not a requirement."
Air Force Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said he believes it's important to find any and all means to help Guard members.
"Now service members need our help to properly and safely reintegrate back with their loved ones and employers," McKinley said. "This unique program will give our Guard and Reserve veterans the care and support they so selflessly earned."
New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, an Army veteran, agrees with McKinley's sentiment and feels the Vets4Warriors program is an unprecedented approach to veterans outreach.
"We can't just stand behind our military on the battlefield — we must also stand behind them when they return home," Lautenberg said. "Too many veterans are coming home with mental wounds and they are suffering in silence."
Bliss worked with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Guard Bureau and the Air National Guard to create the initiative.
"I think we've taken a very effective and proven model," he said, "based upon the way that the police officers dealt with some of the traumas and challenges in their work-life balance … and the proof has been confirmed for us," he said.
To learn more about Vets4Warriors, or to speak with a counselor, service and family members can call the Vets4Warriors toll-free hotline at 1-855-VET-TALK (838-8255) or go to the Vets4Warriors website.