Fatima Aguilar’s first day on the job at Vets4Warriors was anything but normal. A military veteran serving 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. Maybe just a voice, someone to talk with, makes a difference,” she said. “Sometimes that difference is between life and death.”
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 veteran clinicians and veteran peers.
“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 will answer the phone live around the clock. We also have a licensed clinician here.”
The call center at Vets4Warriors is staffed by veterans and licensed clinicians around the clock, year-round.
“The majority of calls we get are for depression, loneliness or anxiety - just folks who are struggling with everyday life,” Major Gen. Graham said. “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 Major Gen. Graham, the mental health crisis gripping our nation’s military is extremely personal. The Grahams 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,” Graham said. “I want to make sure there’s a number they can call 24 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,” said Middlesex County Freeholder Director Ronald G. Rios. “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 componentin his role as Freeholder Director, highlighted the role of organizations like Vets4Warriors and their private-sector partners to help ensure that nobody who has served suffers needlessly.
“Hearing about the impact Vets4Warriors has had touches my heart,” Rios said. “Programs like this go hand-in-hand with our county’s efforts to lift veterans out of crisis.”
Vets4Warriors has also received strong support from Verizon, which is highlighting the program on FiOS1 News.
“Verizon is committed to serving those who serve our country. We employ more than 10,000 veterans, who contribute their skills across our entire business,“ said Samuel A. Delgado, Vice President of External Affairs for Verizon New Jersey, who is a 20-year Marine Corps veteran.
“Many of the lessons I learned as a U.S. Marine officer 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.”
The segment will be running on Verizon FiOS1 News in the upcoming weeks.