VA Plans National Distribution of Suicide Hotline PSA

House Committee on Veterans' Affairs

September 26, 2008 – On Tuesday, September 23, 2008, the House Veterans’ Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, led by Chairman Harry Mitchell (D-AZ), conducted a hearing to evaluate the progress made by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in utilizing advertising and marketing in its strategic plan to provide outreach to veterans.  The Subcommittee held an initial hearing on July 15, 2008 entitled “VA Media Outreach” to explore the opportunities available to the VA to better educate veterans on the benefits and services available to them. Link to 7/15/08 hearing.

On June 16, 2008, the Secretary of the VA, Dr. James Peake, overturned a ban on paid advertising, specifically using professional marketing and advertising resources to more effectively reach and educate veterans and their families about VA benefits.  At the July 15th hearing, Assistant Secretary Lisette Mondello testified that the VA still faced challenges in implementing a comprehensive advertising plan.  These challenges included developing a Request for Proposal (RFP) to contract for professional advertising expertise, expanding the use into new media, and development of metrics for measuring success or failure. 

Prior to the July Subcommittee hearing, the Veterans Health Administration initiated a pilot program in the Washington, D.C. area, consisting of public service advertisements placed in buses, subway stations, and subway cars informing veterans about help available through VA’s suicide hot line.  VA reports that calls to the hotline increased substantially as a result of the campaign.  VA has also created a pilot advertisement featuring actor Gary Sinese.  The advertisement encourages veterans and members of their family to call the Suicide Hotline if they need support.  The VA has a contract for distribution of the video, which was completed on September 9, 2008, and is scheduled to be awarded by September 30, 2008. Distribution to television stations nationwide is scheduled by the VA to be accomplished by mid-October.   Assistant Secretary Mondello said, “We expect to begin distribution next month.  Based on our successful experience last year with the Healthier US Vets campaign with John Elway, we expect to  reach an audience of over 8 million viewers.”  

Assistant Secretary Mondello said, “We expect to begin distribution next month.  Based on our successful experience last year with the Healthier US Vets campaign with John Elway, we expect to reach an audience of over 8 million viewers.”  

“The VA can help veterans in many ways – with support for reintegration and combat stress issues, with paying for college or buying a house, and with healthcare,” said Chairman Mitchell.  “In order to fulfill its mission, VA must reach out and find veterans and their families.  The fact that the Subcommittee is holding this hearing, the second this year to focus on media outreach, should make the importance of this issue clear.”

Witnesses on the first panel discussed the need to take advantage of the communication possibilities of modern media.  Iraq War Veteran Brian Hawthorne discussed the need for VA outreach for service members as they return home.  He offered the following testimony: “Upon redeployment after the tour, the homecoming experiences run the gamut, from good to bad. For the most part, the excitement of reuniting with families and the real world takes precedence over all else, and whatever issues that service member was facing are pushed down. The veteran selects the middle of the road answers on the mental health survey, and is released from the out-processing center. After all, he just wants to get home! He doesn’t want to stay away from his family any longer, or hold up his buddies’ demobilization, so he skimps on details with the health care provider and goes on home.  At no time, however, did my chain of command, or anyone else, contact me to see how I was doing. The rationale for this, at least in my experience,
is that Soldiers don’t want to be bothered with Army business during this time, so they are not.” 

Hawthorne served as a combat medic during his tours in Iraq and soldiers in his unit reached out to him upon returning home.  Mostly, he referred them to Military One Source, which was heavily advertised during post-deployment briefings, and generally offered outstanding treatment.  Hawthorne expressed his concern during his testimony: “what about the veterans who don’t have a Doc, or who do not know about Military One Source? Or what about the family member who has concerns about their recently returned veteran, and does not know who to call? That, I believe, is where the VA Suicide Hotline plays the most important role. By advertising its availability and convenience, not only where the veterans are, but also where their families and friends are. By making this service public knowledge, we are infinitely increasing the likelihood that a veteran will end up using it, either through his own discovery, or the peer pressure so to speak of a concerned family member or friend.”

Iraq War Veteran Wade J. Spann testified about his personal experience when he returned as a combat wounded veteran: “The transition from the Marine Corps, to an academic environment was filled with frustration, miscommunication, and a sense of feeling out of place. To be honest, I felt more comfortable going to Iraq than stepping into a classroom.  Only a few short weeks after my discharge from active duty, I began my first college classes and quickly learned that there were going to be obstacles to face due to my head injury in Iraq.  It became clear as time went by, that my short-term memory loss had dramatic effects on my abilities to retain information and that I was going to need everyday assistance from professors and tutors”. A great deal of my knowledge about my entitlements and disability benefits has come from listening to other veterans who have already gone through this process.  I would have been unable to afford the most expensive school in the country had I not heard about the VA Chapter 31 Vo
cational Rehabilitation benefit from another Marine.   It was not easy to get approval, but Vocational Rehabilitation is the only reason I am able to attend George Washington University”   I can only imagine if the VA were able to reach twice as many people, through a more sophisticated website or the use of e-mail, how many more veterans would be aware of the benefits to them”. The small details and obscure programs that the VA offers need to be divulged to the veteran rather then him relying on word of mouth and his own investigating skills.  The VA website needs to make its listed programs easier to understand, as it stands now I still have trouble understanding what I’m entitled to under the various programs”. A veteran cannot ask for something if he does not know it exists or where to go to receive it.”       

Iraq War Veteran Carolyn Schapper offered disappointment that the VA has not taken advantage of outreach opportunities that could benefit veterans like her.  “Because the VA is so late to the game, there’s a huge backlog of veterans who were not as lucky as I was, and who have not yet found their way to the services they need.  There is a huge amount of catching up to do.  I also recently read a copy of the letter the VA is apparently sending out in conjunction with this campaign” The letter is good and comprehensive, but I ask who is and is not receiving it?  I have not received it.”      

Rick Weidman of the Vietnam Veterans of America discussed the importance of reaching veterans of every generation.  “Communicating with Vietnam veterans continues to be a challenge for the VA because this is a generation that feels betrayed by their government.  This group of veterans has not always felt welcomed at the VA and concerns remain regarding the truthfulness of information coming from the VA.  VA must undertake an organized and thoughtful campaign to honestly address the needs of Vietnam veterans and clearly identify the benefits and services available to them.”  

“I am pleased that the VA has begun to utilize the opportunities offered by modern media to better connect to veterans, although I remain concerned that these efforts are disjointed and not as coordinated as they need to be during a time of war,” said Bob Filner (D-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.  “It is essential for the VA to develop an aggressive outreach campaign in order to ensure that each veteran is fully informed of the services available to them.  As the VA reaches more veterans, it must be fully prepared to provide the mental health care, education benefits and health treatments that these veterans have been promised and have bravely earned.”   

“I welcome the VA’s decision to expand its outreach,” said Mitchell. “Waiting for veterans to show up at the VA is neither effective nor acceptable. We need to be proactive and bring the VA to our veterans.”


Panel 1

–       Brian Hawthorne, Washington, D.C., OIF Veteran

–       Wade Spann, Washington, D.C., (OIF Veteran)

–       Carolyn Schapper, Washington, D.C., OIF Veteran

–       Richard F. Weidman, Executive Director of Policy and Government Affairs, Vietnam Veterans of America

Panel 2

–       Cary Hatch, President and Chief Executive Officer, MDB Communications, Inc., Washington, D.C.

Panel 3

–       Honorable Lisette M. Mondello, Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Accompanied by:

o       Everett A. Chasen, Chief Communications Director, Veterans Health Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

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