Exclusive

Exclusive: Pentagon Shutting Highly-Regarded Support Program for Troubled Troops

The Defense Department has long praised a support program for troubled troops. That wasn't enough to save it from the budget axe.

The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia outside Washington, DC is seen in this aerial photograph, April 23, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia outside Washington, DC is seen in this aerial photograph, April 23, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The Defense Department has spent years hailing the success of Vets4Warriors, a Pentagon-funded call center in suburban New Jersey that connected troubled troops with veterans who shared their backgrounds and had in many cases faced similar types of problems. Now, with no public notice, the program is being shuttered.

The decision to close down Vets4Warriors, which has not previously been reported, came as a shock to the program’s leadership and others in the tightly-knit community of mental health professionals struggling to help the military get its suicide epidemic under control, and ensure that troops facing marital stress, depression, or financial problems get the support they need. In 2014, Vets4Warriors personnel took more than 27,000 calls; over the past three years, it has taken more than 110,000 calls. Tens of thousands of veterans have subsequently received some form of assistance from the five-year-old program.

Christopher Kosseff, who started the program from his perch as the president and CEO of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, said in an interview that Pentagon’s decision to merge Vets4Warriors into its much-larger Military OneSource initiative was “just shocking to me, and just a total disappointment.”

“They just don’t understand what we do, and how different we are,” he said. “It’s really a false economy to think they can do it and do it cheaply. They see two 1-800 numbers and think, ‘OK, let’s merge them and save some money.’ But we carry out totally different missions.”

One mental health professional who regularly works with troops and veterans, speaking anonymously to avoid angering the Pentagon, called the move “baffling and mean-spirited,” noting that hundreds of troops continue to take their own lives each year. Active-duty military suicides spiked in the years after 9/11, hitting a peak of 319 in 2012 before declining slightly in 2013. More than 3,000 active-duty personnel have killed themselves since the start of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with hundreds of Reserve and National Guard personnel.

In a letter obtained by Foreign Policy, Kosseff, who has been running the program on behalf of the Defense Department, told Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson that he was “deeply saddened by the decision made in your department to move this valuable service from the university.”

“A sad day, indeed, for our service members,” Kosseff wrote. “In addition, this move will necessitate the layoff of 40 well-trained, talented veterans who have been diligently providing the Vets4Warriors support services around the clock.”

Kosseff warned Carson that Rutgers owns the Vets4Warriors trademark, and warned the Pentagon against trying to reuse the name. He also said that Rutgers would “seek other funding to keep this valuable service operating,” a nod to what people familiar with the matter describe as a push to find private money to keep the program afloat.

Pentagon spokesperson Laura Seal said Vets4Warriors would be absorbed into Military OneSource, the Defense Department’s catchall program for troops or military family members seeking counseling or other forms of assistance for a wide range of issues. Seal said the move would save the government $5.5 million per year, a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the military spends annually on mental health programs.

“This is very simply a decision about providing the best possible benefit to our service members and their families, while also ensuring that we are responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars,” Seal said. “Since we can provide improved peer-to-peer support using existing resources via Military OneSource, there is no need to contract with an additional company.”

Seal said veterans calling Military OneSource up to 180 days after their retirement from the military could request that their call go to a veteran. She said all of the program’s counselors have at least Master’s degrees in behavioral or psychological help. “We are very much looking forward to any lessons learned from our friends at V4W,” she added, using an acronym for Vets4Warriors.

Personnel there are sure to be less than enthusiastic about trying to share those kinds of findings with the Pentagon given the anger — and utter surprise — many Vets4Warriors officials feel in the wake of the Defense Department’s unexpected decision to end the program.

As recently as January, the program’s call center — housed in a small office building near a Radisson Hotel in Piscataway, N.J. — was receiving a steady stream of high-level Pentagon visitors. That month’s guest was Marine Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia, the top enlisted aide to Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Battaglia toured the facility and spent time speaking with veterans staffing the phone lines. According to a later account in a local newspaper, Battaglia told volunteers that he and other top military officials were working to make troops who need help feel more comfortable speaking about the issue with higher-ranking personnel.

Battaglia wasn’t the first top official to sing the program’s praises. In November 2013, Jessica Wright, Carson’s predecessor at the Pentagon, made a similar visit to the call center to announce an expansion in the Pentagon’s support for the effort.

“The peer support offered by Vets4Warriors is a great benefit to the total force,” she said during her visit. “I’m impressed with the peer counselors’ commitment, and as veterans themselves, they understand and can really connect with callers.”

In the end, though, those warm feelings weren’t enough to save the program.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

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