Hotline helps war-weary troops, families

USA Today

February 27, 2008 – PLYMOUTH MEETING, Pa. — Rows of hotline operators with muted voices mask the desperation of incoming calls on a recent afternoon: a soldier back from Iraq with a drinking problem and a broken marriage; an Army recruiter in the throes of depression; a Marine in Iraq eager to reach his wife after the birth of his son.

This warren of cubicles in a suburban-Philadelphia office building — with two other call centers in Arlington, Va., and St. Petersburg, Fla. — are the Pentagon’s front line for fighting the strain of war.

The 24-hour hotline program, Military OneSource, offers an array of services to soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines or their families, from tax preparation and financial advice to psychological and family counseling. It augments military chaplains and base programs.

DIALING FOR DIRECTION: Calls rise at Pentagon help hotline

A few years ago, OneSource consultants found a temporary home for a 15-foot pet boa constrictor while its owner, an Army National Guard soldier, went to Iraq. In 2005, U.S. military doctors at a combat hospital in Iraq used the hotline to find a translator who could help treat, by telephone conference call, a wounded Nepalese soldier.
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But the calls that send consultants to the “serenity room” here to chill out, or to take a walk around the building, are pleas for help from war-weary troops or their relatives.

“There’s a lot of stress (for) a lot of servicemembers who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Amy DiMalanta, 34, who answers calls.

“They’re having a lot of issues they’re facing at home like reintegration (with their family) or just the stress of, ‘Am I going to go back (to war)?’ ” she says. “A lot of them emphasize that they have a hard time sleeping … having nightmares or they’re thinking that, ‘Oh, I’m still in Iraq,’ or ‘I’m thinking I’m going to hear a bomb go off.’ “

Through the program, operated by Minneapolis-based Ceridian Corp., callers to 800-342-9647 get up to six free sessions with a licensed therapist located no more than 30 miles from their home, says Cherie Zadlo, a former Air Force colonel who runs OneSource. The first session must be made available within three days.

Timothy Larsen, Marine Corps chief of family programs, calls OneSource “an invaluable tool.”

Once a week, there is a crisis call, often a threat of suicide, says Dan Lafferty, a licensed social worker and clinical supervisor here. Operators silently alert co-workers while keeping the servicemember on the line. Supervisors will listen in on the conversation. If necessary, authorities are contacted, Zadlo says.

“You ask them if they have a plan,” DiMalanta says. “(They say) ‘I just think I want to die. I don’t know what to do with myself. I’m desperate. I’m lost.’ And so you take it from there.”

A more common plea for help, however, is the call like the one from Army wife Angie Ayers, 36, of Lone Pier, Mich.

“They helped me deal with my teenage daughter’s anger over her dad being gone,” says Ayers, whose husband, Joe, deployed with the National Guard to Iraq in 2004-05.

Ayers’ daughter, Elizabeth, then 13, grew angrier with her dad’s absence: slamming doors, scrawling hate words on a photo of Osama bin Laden and dissolving into tears at news of a death in her father’s unit. OneSource found a family counselor for the Ayers family.

Mother and daughter attended. “She (Elizabeth) was getting better, and I noticed,” Ayers says.

Since early last year, Ceridian has operated OneSource under a bridge contract while the Pentagon has sought competitive bids for a new three-year deal.

Services from OneSource’s hotline offered to military families include personal finance management, information on educational loans, spouse employment training and career management, and self-help groups that focus on drug and alcohol abuse, gambling addiction and eating disorders.

Serious medical or psychological problems are referred to military health care, Zadlo says. But stress or marital issues can be treated by in-person counseling with private-sector therapists under a promise that the military chain-of-command will not be notified, she says.

Pentagon surveys last year show that 71% of the wives of junior enlisted servicemembers say loneliness is a serious problem during deployments. A program goal is to offer a voice on the phone for military families. There are also online chat rooms and workshops.

“We’re thinking that Military OneSource is sort of like a club you belong to,” says Jane Burke, who supervises the program for the Pentagon’s Office of Military Community and Family Policy. “We think it is the way of the future for the military to get connected (to troops and their families).”

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