Veterans can help veterans deal with trauma resulting from military service in a way no one else can. That's the theory behind a special hotline set up in the Tampa Bay area that proponents are hoping to take statewide.
The expansion would cost some $2 million, money that state lawmakers decided not to spend in their most recent session. By all indications, it would be a good investment — a way to connect veterans with a sympathetic ear and improve the chances that they'll follow up and seek help in their communities.
The year before, the Legislature did take the right step in allocating $400,000 to expand the veterans hotline statewide through the network of existing crisis services at the local level.
Now, when a veteran calls 1-844-MyFLVet or 2-1-1, he or she speaks with someone trained to provide immediate emotional support with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, relationship troubles and personal finances. The service is available 24 hours a day.
Taking the next step and staffing the hotline with trained veterans promises to accomplish even more in bringing down the shocking number of former service members who take their own lives each day — by some estimates, 20 to 22 nationwide.
Crisis Center of Tampa Bay is to be commended for launching its veteran-staffed crisis line in October 2014 to help former service members all across its service area — Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk, Pasco and Manatee counties.
The operation is a model for other communities and states seeking to help their veterans. And this is the place to get it right when it comes to easing the pain of military service.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported that during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2016, Hillsborough County had 98,307 veterans — the most in Florida and an increase of more than 5,100 over 2015. No. 3 in the state was Pinellas County at 90,533.
As Howard Altman of the Tampa Bay Times has reported, suicide hit home in the 2016 year for some two dozen military families across Tampa Bay — veterans and active-duty members alike. It's impossible to say whether the smoother path toward help that a hotline can provide would have prevented any of them.
But those who work helping veterans support the hotline expansion as part of a wider array of services. Local advocates are helping push measures in Congress, too, that would require the Pentagon to do more earlier in helping service members transition back into a world where they must fend for themselves.
Finding job opportunities, education and emotional support during this transition is key to heading off the problems of post-traumatic stress and homelessness that can lead veterans to despondency.
Callers to the Tampa Bay area crisis line are seeking help with a range of needs, including employment assistance and navigating the often-daunting Department of Veterans Affairs health and benefits programs. But nearly two out of three called seeking help with behavioral health, and among this group, nearly one out of three said they were feeling suicidal.
A powerful symbol of the campaign to expand the hotline stands outside the entrance to MacDill Air Force Base — a tapestry in billboard form placed by the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and made entirely of military gear donated by veterans. It carries a message: "You bring home more than your gear."
It's part of a campaign called "Stitches of Duty," rooted in the work of veterans who are willing and able to help their comrades in need.
They deserve help in their cause from the broader community of people who benefit from the service of veterans. That includes all Floridians — and their elected representatives in Tallahassee.