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On the line: Inside a veterans crisis hotline

Need to Know presents VII Magazine, a new journalistic partnership with VII Photo, which will give our readers unprecedented intimate access to the work of the world’s leading photojournalists. Every day, our partners at VII will showcase a new photo, and each week, a new video or audio slideshow.

This week
At an office in Canandaigua, N.Y., operators answer about 300 calls a day from veterans who are considering suicide.

Opened in 2007 by the Veterans Administration, the veterans crisis hotline  the first of its kind in the country. The office received 10,000 calls in 2007, but the number had increased to 70,000 in 2008, and in 2009, it was 120,000. By June of this year, the line had already received just under 100,000 calls.

In this photo essay, VII photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson, provides a mesmerizing glimpse into the daily lives of these call responders.

Note: This photo essay can be found in VII Magazine’s archives. To view it, visit the VII Magazine page and click on the “Features” tab.

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  • Disabled Vet

    The primary VA Crisis Hotline is in upstate Canandaigua, NY. Overflow
    calls are routed elsewhere and just last month, it became necessary to open
    another call center in Oregon
    to handle all of the calls. The VA Crisis Hotline used to be called the VA
    Suicide Prevention Hotline. The name was changed a year or so ago, to help
    encourage vets to call when they were in “crisis” and before they
    checked out. Most of the people who staff these call centers are very good at
    what they do, empathetic and caring. Some are not so good and believe that it
    is still a Suicide Prevention Hotline only. I spoke with the director of the
    call center after encountering one of the latter and she apologized for that
    staffer’s misinformation and the way she had badly handled my call. The Asst. Director’s
    name is Caitlin Thompson, Ph.D and she is second in command over the national
    VA Crisis Hotline. When I spoke with her recently by telephone, (585) 394-2000
    ext. 37477 her first question to me was how did you get my telephone number,
    which indicates to reasonably minded people that that she does not desire to do
    her job or be help accountable.  Know
    this though, if you tell them you are suicidal, have a plan and the means to
    carry out that plan, your local police will be at your door in minutes. You
    will be taken to a facility, stripped naked, given a gown-type garment to wear,
    held in solitary confinement and evaluated. No, this has not happened to me,
    but it is the protocol. It is up to you to decide whether the cure is worse
    than the disease. Some of the staffers I have spoken with previously are Vietnam combat vets and a woman whose husband
    died from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Some of the staffers are
    paid employees and some are volunteers. They have the capacity to view your VA
    medical records. Speaking of VA medical records… It’s a good idea to review
    your records for accuracy. If you find an error, you can complete a Patient
    Amendment Request Form and submit it to have the inaccurate information
    changed. I have a friend who became homeless because he needed combat-related
    knee surgery (was unable to walk, so he lost his job) and his VA surgeon
    falsely stated in his medical records that he declined the surgery, which was a
    total lie. Once he found out about the lie, the VA finally did the surgery and
    he can walk and work again. One final warning- there is an organization called
    Volunteers of America (VOA), that is affiliated with the VA. If you are a
    homeless vet, they will help you find housing, employment and/or assistance
    with filing for disability benefits. However, they presume that all homeless
    vets became homeless as a result of drug and alcohol abuse and treat you
    accordingly (like a child). You will be drug-tested by your local VA Clinic and
    alcohol tested by VOA staffers at least weekly. Being homeless as a result of
    the “economy” is not on their radar. You are not allowed to leave
    their property without permission and you are not allowed to have access to a
    car. You will be given a bus pass to get to work or they will buy you a bicycle
    to ride to work. You are also required to participate in AA/NA even if you have
    never had a problem with alcohol or drugs. This is a highly structured program
    that is similar to jail. If you fail to adhere to any of their oppressive
    dehumanizing conditions, they will toss you into the street like a bag of
    trash. Some of their staffers (who are in charge of you for the duration of
    your stay) are former alcoholics and crack-heads with little or no formal