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Veterans helping veterans in new suicide-prevention line

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TEMPE – After serving 13 years between the Air Force and the Army, Daniel Turner knows the frustrations veterans face.

He’s seen those pressures overtake people, like when a soldier he knew committed suicide. That’s why he thinks a new veteran-to-veteran suicide prevention hotline can work so well.

“A lot of times, just having an open ear to somebody experiencing that, a phone they can call and talk to somebody they’re comfortable with, really helps reduce that snowball effect of the stress where it leads to potentially suicide or greater mental illness,” Turner said.

The veteran-to-veteran line, called Rally Point, is being launched by La Frontera Arizona and Empact-Suicide Prevention Center, a mental health and suicide-prevention organization where Turner works as the military liaison.

It’s similar to a traditional veteran suicide-prevention hotline except it will have veterans and their families working the phones. The group is using $65,000 it received earlier this year from the Arizona Veterans’ Donation Fund, which the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services administers with proceeds from Veteran and Freedom special license plates and private donations.

“It’s a shared sense of trust, a shared responsibility that’s communicated just by somebody who’s answering the phone saying, ‘Yeah, I’m a veteran, I understand what you’re going through,’” Turner said.

Turner and Rodrigo Olivares, La Frontera Arizona and Empact’s director of clinical and crisis services, plan to recruit and train a pool of 50-60 veterans or veterans’ family members to work the phones at Rally Point.

Trained clinicians will be available to handle veterans in crisis, but veterans, after going through a day of classroom training and ongoing training with clinicians, will talk with veterans who aren’t in crisis but need help.

“It gives veterans or their family members an outlet to talk about their problems before it gets to the point of having so many stressors that it gets suicidal or homicidal,” Turner said.

Chad Waltz, a 14-year military veteran, works with Vets4Vets, a Tucson-based support organization aimed at Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans. He said having veterans supporting veterans helps because they understand the terminology and can relate.

“If you’re able to talk and really draw from your experiences, and build that rapport with that individual in crisis, that could be really critical,” Waltz said.

As of 2010, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that 6,000 veterans commit suicide each year.

That’s just shy of the 6,600 total who have died in action or in ways other than suicide during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It is a serious problem,” said Mark Ballesteros, a VA spokesman. “We operate under the philosophy that one veteran suicide is too many.”

Ballesteros said the increasing awareness is why the Army held a Suicide Prevention Stand Down last month, devoting a day to addressing the issue, and why President Barack Obama issued an executive order in August mandating increased support for veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Ballesteros wouldn’t comment directly on La Frontera’s Rally Point project but did say mental health and related services are crucial.

“Access to high quality health care services can positively impact suicide prevention,” he said.

According to VA estimates there were a little more than 550,000 veterans in Arizona in 2011, about 130,000 of whom had contact with the VA. Nationally the VA served roughly 5.4 million veterans in 2011, creating backlogs and sometimes-confusing processes for veterans.

“It can be daunting, and it can be daunting for somebody that has all their mental faculties,” Turner said. “If somebody has PTSD, if they’re stressed out from returning from a combat zone or if their husband or wife is deployed, dealing with that daunting bureaucracy can be overwhelming.”

Part of Rally Point’s mission is helping frustrated veterans find out what services are available through the VA or other organizations, Turner said.

“It’s not just them expressing their emotional, mental needs,” he said. “But connecting them so they can get their needs met.”