Crisis Line Specialist Helps Fellow Veterans


For one combat veteran, his job can be as simple as listening to a service member or veteran who needs someone to talk to. But sometimes, his job is to assist somebody who may be suicidal.

Jeffrey Swafford, a former Air Force staff sergeant, is a health science specialist with the Veterans Crisis Line here. He said active-duty service members, National Guardsmen, reservists, veterans and their family members and friends can call, text or chat online with him or any of his co-workers confidentially 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just to talk or if they need more serious help, such as suicide prevention.

“We’re here to help,” Swafford said. “Even if you want to call, and it’s 10 to 15 minutes of it being nothing but you talking and me just sitting there listening, that’s one of the things we’re here for, too. We’re always here. You can always call us. It doesn’t matter if it’s 2 a.m. We’re here to talk. We’re here to help.”

“Whether you’re an Iraqi veteran or a Korean War veteran or a Vietnam veteran, we will help you,” he said. “We can help you get connected with the resources that you’re looking for and that you need. You’re not going through this alone. You’ve always got somebody here who you can talk to.”

Wanting to Help

Swafford said he left the Air Force after serving for eight years as a security forces specialist with multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Kyrgyzstan. He knew he still wanted to help service members and veterans, he added, so he began his work at the Veterans Crisis Line.

“I really felt as if it was something I would be able to help with and I would be able to give back to in some way,” he said. “I really enjoy helping and giving back, helping service members and veterans.”

Swafford said callers often ask to speak with veterans because of the instant connection service members have with one another. Because of his own post-traumatic stress from operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, his work can be challenging, he acknowledged. But he puts the callers’ concerns first, he said, and he shares with them some of his coping techniques.

“I tell them, ‘You need to find something that’s yours and yours only,’” he said. “It could be ‘Every evening, I need to go by myself and walk for an hour or go play golf, work out, [go] fishing, hunting or camping, just something that doesn’t have to be with anybody else,’” he said.You can go do it by yourself, or if it makes you feel more comfortable to be with somebody, do that as well, but you need to find what’s yours, what your comfort place is that will allow you the ability to cope and to relax and to get yourself back in a right frame of mind.”

He said his own stress occasionally gets triggered, but helping others is more important.

“A lot of the callers are mentioning the exact same bases I was at when I was in,” he said. “When they talk about mortars and explosions going off, it makes me think, ‘I went through some of those, too,’ so some of the stories will trigger some things at times. But after the call, I’ll just take an extra three or four minutes and get up and clear my head, because when the phone rings, I’ve got to be ready to go right back at it. I’ve got to be in the right frame of mind that I can take that call with no problem.”

Why it Matters

On many of his calls, Swafford said, he could almost see “that little light bulb go off in their head, and you just hear that breaking point where they’re finally just like taking a deep calming breath and saying, ‘OK, I can do this,’” he said. “First, it’s taken so much out of them just to reach out and admit they need help, because they’re worried it will make them look weak, which isn’t the case.”

Sometimes, Swafford said, people will call back in gratitude and to say they’ve made appointments to get help. “Those are the times where it really feels like we’re really making a difference,” he said.

Training

Swafford said the specialists learn how to direct calls and how to keep the conversations flowing. He said they spend an extended period of time with seasoned responders before they start taking calls themselves and will not start on their own until they feel ready to do so.

“No two calls you get are going to be exactly the same, so you’ve really got to be prepared for anything when that phone rings,” the Etowah, Tennessee, native said. “It can be anything from somebody just wanting to talk to somebody who is suicidal [and] may have already attempted. It could be a number of things. Worst-case scenario, a veteran could call in and state they have a gun, they’re ready to use it, they have nothing to live for and you try talking to them and you hear them chamber a round. What can I say to bring them to a safe place?

“I let them dictate the way the conversation goes, find that common bond, let them know they’re OK, that everything’s fine, that I’m there to help them, and that I’m there for that support,” he continued. “I listen in on key things they may like to do and focus in on that. A lot of times, that helps out tremendously.”

Resources

Swafford said the Veterans Crisis Line specialists will provide callers with resources in their area, whether it is on installations for service members or at Veterans Affairs Department facilities for veterans.

“For many active-duty service members who call in, they worry about losing their security clearances or jobs for just calling in,” he said. “You’re not going to. We provide you with the help and the resources available on your installation. You aren’t going to lose your security clearance or your job. You aren’t going to get discharged for reaching out for help, because that’s not the case at all. We can provide those things for you, and that’s what we’re here to do.”

Since its launch in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered more than 1.86 million calls and made more than 50,000 lifesaving rescues. In 2009, the Veterans Crisis Line added an anonymous online chat service and has engaged in more than 240,000 chats. In November 2011, the Veterans Crisis Line introduced a text-messaging service to provide another way for veterans to connect with confidential, around-the-clock support, and since then has responded to more than 39,000 texts.

When people call the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, they can speak to a confidential peer responder specifically trained to deal with any crisis or stresses the service member, veteran or family member may be facing.

People can also reach the crisis line via an online chat or text message to 838255 or online at http://www.militarycrisisline.net. The crisis line is free and confidential, and trained professionals are there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Civilian employees can also reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.