Middlesex County News

Vets4Warriors Gives Struggling Veterans a Lifeline

From left: Director of Vets4Warriors US Army Maj. Gen. Mark A. Graham (ret.), Verizon NJ Vice President for External Affairs Samuel A. Delgado, and Middlesex Co. Freeholder Director Ronald G. Rios Credits: Josh Frank
Lieutenant Fatima Aguilar (left) discusses the US Military mental health crisis with Middlesex Co. Freeholder Director Ronald G. Rios (right). Credits: Josh Frank
The call center at Vets4Warriors is staffed around the clock, year-round by veterans and licensed clinicians. Credits: Josh Frank

Fatima Aguilar’s first day on the job at Vets4Warriors was anything but normal. A military veteran who’s currently enlisted as a Second Lieutenant with the New Jersey National Guard, she found herself in a potential suicide crisis situation as soon as she hit the phones.

“I started around three and a half years ago on the overnight shift, and my very first call was a US Marine veteran who was on a bridge, intoxicated and pacing back and forth.” said Aguilar. “I was sweating and shaking, but I offered him a voice - an ear to listen. I listened to him tell me about his service and his struggles, and I was able to talk him back to safety and off the bridge.”

“It’s the power of being a veteran - that maybe just a voice, someone to talk with, makes a difference. Sometimes that difference is between life and death.”

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Saving lives is just another day on the job at Vets4Warriors, a peer support network serving veterans, active duty military officers, National Guard and reserve service members and their caregivers. Located in Piscataway, Vets4Warriors is staffed around the clock every day of the year by a team of both veteran clinicians and veteran peers.

“The premise of the program is: Let’s not wait to help a veteran until after the crisis passes,” said Maj. General Mark A. Graham, director of the Vets4Warriors program. “When you call, there’s a veteran who’ll answer the phone live around the clock. We also have a licensed clinician here.”

“The majority of calls we get are for depression, loneliness or anxiety - just folks who are struggling with everyday life.” said Graham. “What we offer is peer support; saying, ‘You served, I served - how can we assist you? How can we get you to a better place, regardless of what you’ve been through?’”

For Gen. Graham, the mental health crisis gripping our nation’s military is extremely personal. The Grahams tragically lost a son, Kevin, a Senior Army ROTC Cadet, to suicide in 2003, while he was studying to be an Army Doctor.

Kevin Graham had struggled with depression for years, but his family never knew the full extent of his suffering. “I wanted to continue to serve in a different way after retiring - to honor Kevin’s memory,” said Graham. “I want to make sure there’s a number they can call twenty-four hours a day. I want to make sure someone follows up and calls back, as many times as is necessary.”

The crisis illustrates an increasing need for partnerships between the military, local government and the private sector to help service personnel and their families transition successfully to civilian life and handle the after-effects of active duty.

“My position is an opportunity to create and enhance programs for veterans in our state that I want to fully take advantage of,” said Ronald G. Rios, Director of the Board of Chosen Freeholders of Middlesex County. “I’m incredibly proud that our Board [of Chosen Freeholders] has been recognized by the White House for our efforts to combat homelessness among veterans with our Veterans Housing Assistance program.”

Rios, who has made outreach to veterans a core component of his mandate as Freeholder Director, highlighted the role of organizations like Vets4Warriors and their private-sector partners in making sure that nobody who’s served suffers needlessly.

“Hearing about the impact Vets4Warriors has had touches my heart,” said Rios. “Programs like this go hand-in-hand with our County’s efforts to lift veterans out of crisis.”

“Verizon is committed to serving those who serve our country," said Samuel A. Delgado, Vice President of External Affairs for Verizon New Jersey. "We employ more than 10,000 veterans, who contribute their skills across our entire business.“

“Many of the lessons I learned as a US Marine helped shape my career at Verizon,” Delgado said. “I’m moved by the stories of these service members, and I’m proud to be a part of a company that stands with those who’ve served our country with integrity and honor.”

If you or someone you know is a veteran or current service member in crisis, call Vets4Warriors toll-free, 24/7 at (855) 838-8255, or visit Vets4Warriors.com for more information.

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