During the first three months of its expanded, statewide hotline for veterans, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay estimates about 2,000 former service members called in seeking help because they were considering suicide.
That’s a powerful testament to the problem and the need for the (844) MyFLVet (693-5838) Florida Veterans Support Line, said Clara Reynolds, the organization’s chief executive.
"We are helping keep veterans alive and connected to the services they need," Reynolds said.
The hotline, staffed by veterans, was launched in October 2014 in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk, Pasco and Manatee counties, Reynolds said. In 2016, the hotline received a five-year, $750,000 contract from the state Department of Children and Families for operations.
Reynolds said veterans feel far more comfortable talking to other veterans about their issues, echoing sentiments expressed by a large number of veteran advocate organizations and behavioral health specialists.
Last year, the Legislature awarded the organization a one-year, $400,000 grant through the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs to take the hotline statewide. Reynolds said that through existing technology, callers anywhere in the state are linked up to the local 211 hotline system in their region. The advantage, she said, is that veterans can be connected with needed services where they live.
By calling the hotline, Florida veterans who are struggling with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, relationship troubles and personal finances can connect confidentially to emotional support and community resources, 24 hours a day, according to the State Department of Veterans Affairs website.
During its first three years, the hotline received about 3,300 calls per year. Once the program was expanded statewide, it received about 10,000 calls in just the last quarter of 2017 alone, nearly doubling the total from the previous three years, Reynolds said.
Callers seek help on a wide range of needs, including employment assistance and navigating the often-daunting Department of Veterans Affairs health and benefits programs. But Reynolds said most callers were seeking behavioral health help — nearly 60 percent of them on both the local and statewide hotlines.
More than a third of those callers said they were suicidal, Reynolds said.
State veterans affairs officials laud the hotline system.
"We pride ourselves on being the most veteran-friendly state through our support of the more than 1.5 million veterans that reside in Florida," said Veterans Affairs Department spokesman Steve Murray. "We are honored to support this initiative as part of our goal to ensure Florida veterans receive their earned services, benefits and support."
As part of the statewide expansion, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay has placed a unique message on a billboard near MacDill Air Force Base: "Stitches of Duty," made entirely of military gear donated by veterans.
Still, the organization didn’t meet all its objectives, failing to persuade lawmakers to allocate an additional $2.1 million to hire veterans to staff phone lines statewide — not just in the Tampa Bay area.
"I am hoping the Legislature reconsiders our request," Reynolds said. "We are still losing between 20 to 22 veterans a day to suicide."
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The Pentagon last week announced no new casualties in ongoing operations.
There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 50 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel; 54 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one troop death in support of Operation Joint Guardian, one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; and four deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.