By Dari Kotzker
Melissa Tippett served in the Army for eight years. Now, the retired veteran’s helping active service members and their families. She answers their calls for help at the Rutgers-based 24-hour, nationwide free peer support line — Vets4Warriors.
“We understand what they’ve been through, we understand what it’s like. Most of us deployed. We know where they’ve been, so they like to talk to us. We’re the same,” Tippett said.
Vets4Warriors started in 2011 and was originally designed for the National Guard. The United States Department of Defense is now officially sponsoring the program and has expanded the services to all military branches. Since its inception, they’ve received more than 41,000 calls and have 30 peer support specialists, along with on-site clinicians.
“We build a relationships over time and help them understand, there is help out there. So before they get to a level of a crisis, we want to give them support and steer them in the right direction to help ease their anxiety levels down to where they can get their support and thrive,” said Vets4Warriors director, retired Major Gen. Mark Graham.
“A lot of complaints to me is that I speak to all these doctors and they can’t relate to me because they never served, so having someone who has served, the relationship is just there,” said peer support specialist Roger Francisco.
Vets4Warriors isn’t a crisis line. Although the counselors are certified to respond to suicidal callers, they transfer those cries for help to the military crisis line. But counselors handle just about everything else.
“Someone calls us because they’re just having a bad day, lonely, depressed, anxiety, guilt because they lost a friend or fellow comrade in combat. It’s just a wide variety, relationship issue, financial issue and we help work them through that and give them resources availible to support them,” Graham said.
The relationship doesn’t end when they hang up the phone. Peers will follow up on average from four to 12 times per case.
“It’s to make sure we follow up, make sure the crisis has abated, and it’s to show support. It shows somebody does really care without follow-up, It’s just another call,” said Clinician Supervisor Patricia Spencer.
The busiest time tends to be between 4 p.m. and 3 a.m. And with the holidays starting next week, the peer support specialists expect an increase in calls.
“I was deployed during the holidays. It’s different when away, and family, the call volume goes up before the holidays and we try to make them feel comfortable. Someone cares on Christmas, whatever we can do,” said Tippett.
As part of the expansion, Vets4Warriors has added a live chat feature, as well as more outreach through social media.