Earlier this year I received a routine promotional e mail from the Veterans Crisis Line (VCL), reminding me as a veterans’ advocate that VCL is the VA’s front line of defense against veterans’ suicide, PTSD based personal crises, and other emergencies that constantly confront our nations’ 30 million+ veterans. Knowing that well over one million of those living vets who served from WWII to the present, including me, are LGBT, I wondered how well prepared the Veterans Crisis Line is in serving us.
Its part of my job as Veterans Affairs Officer for the nation’s two top LGBT veterans service organizations to ask questions. I asked. Is the Veterans Crisis Line trained, ready, and able to provide competent relevant counseling and help to America’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning veterans and service members in crises? The VCL leadership team took the question very seriously. A mid March teleconference was arranged, attended by the presidents of American Veterans For Equal Rights (AVER) and Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA), and the top management of Veterans Crisis Line along with its leading experts, regional coordinators, and public relations people. Hard questions were asked and discussed in detail.
The short answer is YES. The Veterans Crisis Line is actively and effectively helping our LGBTQ vets who call desperately seeking help. The discussion with AVER and TAVA leadership served to enhance that help by providing VCL local Suicide Prevention Coordinators with contact and referral information so that our vets could be put in touch with our local and national LGBT veterans’ service organizations for support, mentoring, community, and pride.
And now the details: Its easy enough to assertively say, “Can Do!” as our military officers in the chain of command often did, before handing the job to their sergeants to actually ‘do.’ As any NCO can tell you, the devil is in the details, my dears. There’s an old sailor’s saying about how things get done at sea: “There’s the right way, the wrong way, and the Navy way!” When it comes to saving the life of a suicidal Transgender or Gay veteran, good intentions are not enough; you have to know what the hell you’re doing from the get go. By the time such a vet calls in for help, there are often no second chances.
So, for example, what happens when a sixtyish Gay or Transgender Vietnam vet calls in saying that their life has gone to hell, their partner has died, they’re about to loose their home, they’re out of money, can’t find a job and have simply had it and are about to call it quits and commit suicide; and the caller is not willing to mention their sexual orientation and gender identity? Many older LGBT vets ‘served in silence’ under constant threat of being killed if anyone found out who they really were; and if that didn’t happen, they’d be reported, interrogated and terrorized for months before being dishonorably discharged in disgrace, with the rest of their working lives ruined by their discharge papers’ revelation. So, with that history, they don’t trust the VA or any other authority enough to say, “Oh and by the way I’m a Trans woman…” They don’t expect to be treated with respect and decency, even in their last desperate moments of life. How can VCL personnel be of help if the vet isn’t being cooperative? We were told that VCL personnel are highly trained and experienced in listening for cues such as use of the words “partner” and “lover” and even more subtle clues. Then, the phone counselor is ready to say supportive encouraging things, such as, “you deserve and have our respect for your service; and you are entitled to the same support and help as everyone else; we can get you local help for all these problems, first ‘safe’ housing, and then everything else. Our local Suicide Prevention Coordinators well tell you about a local chapter of an LGBT veterans service organization where you will be welcome and have a chance to be a part of a community…”
Its not all that easy or simple, but I got the sense that they really know what they’re doing and have the right attitude. The above is just one example. We had a lot more questions. Were they aware of ‘double PTSD’? First there’s ordinary combat stress suffered by so many now; and then there’s the additional stress of having had to hide who you were, for years, often under combat conditions. And later in life, many of our living vets had the horror of seeing their lovers die of AIDS after caring for them over years of illness. That’s part of my own PTSD, I own it; no one can take it away from me! Could I dare to talk about all that with a VCL phone counselor if I was at the end of my rope without being dismissed as worthless? I was assured that they are doing that every day. In fact, as a result of our teleconference, VCL local Suicide Prevention Coordinators will now be able to refer Gay or Transgender vets such as myself to VA LGBTQ PTSD support groups in VAMCs around the country. (Oh, what did I just say?) What’s important is that there are VA support groups for vets who’ve suffered that kind of PTSD inducing trauma and VCL is ready and able to tell us about them. TAVA’s president is partnering with VCL in providing Transgender specific resources around the country. AVER’s president is coordinating provision of AVER’s resources to VCL’s team.
There are so many relevant issues to talk about that we literally ran out of time to cover every last one. But, VCLs team is aware of and being provided with additional LGBT veteran resources regarding: culturally sensitive terminology, military sexual trauma, discrimination, the need to hire LGBT phone counselors, understanding queer and questioning individuals, awareness of the VA’s directive regarding dignified and respectful treatment of Transgender veterans as well as the VA’s Transgender Identity Changes Privacy Fact Sheet, and LGBT veterans’ isolation due to family discrimination and losses due to AIDS, among other concerns. Included in the discussion were the amount of ‘diversity training’ given to VCL responders, career and life consequences of the DADT law on the lives of LGBTQ vets, and assurances about privacy concerns.
The Veterans Crisis Line wanted readers of this article to be aware that it is a totally free service to all veterans and for readers to understand and recognize signs of crisis for our veterans, which include:
Hopelessness, feeling as if there’s no way out; Anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness, or mood swings; Feeling as if there’s no reason to live; Rage or anger; Engaging in risky activities without thinking; Increasing alcohol or drug abuse; and Withdrawing from family and friends.
The presence of the following signs requires immediate attention: Thinking about hurting or killing yourself; Looking for ways to kill yourself; Talking about death, dying or suicide; and Self-destructive behavior (drug abuse, weapons, etc.). If you notice these warning signs in a veteran, tell them about the Veterans Crisis Line, or make the call yourself.
Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1,
chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat,
or text to 838255 for free,
confidential support, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
In addition to the immediate intervention by phone or on line, VCL refers veterans in crisis to the following regional resources with follow up within 24 hours to help with: Benefits & Compensation; Education & Training; Employment; Family & Caregiver Support; Health; Homeless Assistance; Housing; Transportation & Travel; All NRD Resources; as well as Other Services & Resources.
Who knew that they do all that! We wanted assurance that VCL was serving the needs of LGBTQ vets, we not only got that assurance, but they listened to our suggestions on how to improve serving our vets, and they partnered with AVER and TAVA to meld our LGBT veterans resources with theirs.
Reprinted with permission ©2015 GayMilitarySignal