WASHINGTON - In an effort to face the unique challenges of providing peer counseling, the National Guard unveiled, during a ceremony at Capitol Hill today, its newest initiative, Vets4Warriors.
Vets4Warriors, a toll-free, peer-to-peer counseling hotline, will provide Guard members and all reserve component members with the ability to speak with counselors on the phone or on-line.
As former service members, the counselors will be able to provide empathy, understanding and a wide variety of tools to help the modern day service member fight the fight on the front lines and the home front, said Army Col. Gregg Bliss.
"[This is ] a peer support hotline that allows service members of any reserve component to call the center 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week, and discus any issues, challenges or problems they have with a peer counselor," said Bliss, the Army National Guard's Soldiers and families support division chief.
"[Service members can speak with ] somebody who's been in the military, somebody we believe … will perhaps have a better understanding of what some of their challenges and issues may be, and then either provide them with referrals or recommendations on how they could they could resolve their issues or even just talk to them and listen to them."
Bliss said that 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 and it's okay to not be okay.
"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.
"We've coordinated a lot of the support services currently available, especially those away from the installation(s), because we're looking for accessibility and convenience, [but] we can't promise that every service is available to every service member based on where they live," Bliss said.
"We've been working with a lot of the national support agencies to come up with a pretty comprehensive listing," he added. "So based upon the challenges you have, we will do our best to refer you to somebody who's in the vicinity to provide you with some of the service support you're looking for.
"We think the key is, it is away from the installation and we are really trying to hook [service members] up with whatever community assets may be available to support their particular needs or circumstances."
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 relating to this type of helpline.
The university created a similar program designed for law enforcement members 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 Solider-to-Soldier model … to develop a more structured peer-to-peer program."
The helpline will be staffed with people selected not only for their skills in counseling, but to share their backgrounds and experiences to help the service members calling to resolve their own issues more effectively.
Even with the ability for service members to have this support, Bliss said this line is not a suicide prevention hotline.
"This is not considered a suicide prevention hotline, nor is intended to provide clinical behavioral health services, this is just a hotline you can call, as a service member, and talk to somebody with a comparable background."
Adding, the strength of this program - because of the anonymity - is that service members can talk to the counselors about a wide variety of topics and not have to worry about a fear of retribution.
"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," he said.
"The organization and the Guard leadership firmly embrace the fact that our [Guard members] will have challenges, they will be under stress, they will have issues that they can't deal with alone, and we fully expect and encourage them to ask for help," Bliss said. "There's no stigma from the organization."
But that anonymity will only work if the service member takes the first step, makes the call and is completely truthful, he 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."
Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, believes that with how fully operational the Guard has been for the last 10 years, it is important to find any and all means to help Guard members be resilient; and this program has his full support.
"Since 9/11, more than 660,000 National Guardsmen and women - some multiple times - have served side-by-side with their active duty counterparts to defend this nation," McKinley said. "Now, some of these service members need our help to properly and safely reintegrate back with their loved ones and employers. This unique program will give our Guard and Reserve veterans the care and support they so selflessly earned."
New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who is also an Army veteran, agrees with McKinley's sentiment and feels this peer-to-peer 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," he said. "Too many veterans are coming home with mental wounds and they are suffering in silence."
Lautenberg, who championed this program to President Barack Obama, Defense Department officials and the National Guard after its success in New Jersey, said he is looking forward to the positive results this program is going to have on a broader scale.
"This peer support line will mean that our veterans have help with their concerns and questions before they reach crisis levels. We won't rest until military and veteran suicides are a thing of the past," he said. "The help line at UMDNJ in New Jersey has been a tremendous success and I applaud the Defense Department and [the National] Guard Bureau for embracing it and using it as a model to help military men and women in every state."
Bliss, who worked with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Guard Bureau and the Air National Guard to create this initiative, is confident this program will be another useful tool in the battle for resiliency.
"I think we've taken a very effective and proven model, 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 theVets4Warriors website.