“American Sniper” may be one of the favorites to win best picture at Sunday’s Academy Awards, but it’s not the only Oscar-nominated film to shed light on the emotional impacts of war fighting.
Among this year’s other nominees is “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” an HBO documentary about the Department of Veterans Affairs’ 24-hour call center for troubled veterans and service members, as well as concerned family and friends. The film is a candidate for best short-subject documentary.
The 40-minute film, which can only be viewed on HBO right now, centers around the hotline responders, capturing private moments in which staff members react to complex calls and discuss the emotional challenges of their work.
One scene involves an Afghanistan war veteran and father of five who is troubled by recurring dreams of “bodies face-down in the water.”
“You’re their father,” the responder says. “No one can replace you.”
In another scene, a daylong search for a distressed anonymous caller ends with the man being admitted to an Army medical center. “This is a good ending to this day,” a crisis-center supervisor remarks.
Another responder, after processing the loss of a caller to suicide, says, “We get back to work as fast as we can. We’ve got other vets to work with.”
(Watch this VA You Tube video for more interviews with the hotline responders)
The VA call center, based in Canandaigua, N.Y., fields about 22,000 calls each month from former and active-duty troops thinking about suicide or otherwise struggling. Julianne Mullane, acting director of operations for the hotline, told USA Today that she plans to beef up staffing on Sunday, just in case the Oscar publicity generates more activity.
A two-year VA study released in 2010 found that the rate of veteran suicides increased by about 20 percent compared to 2007 estimates. More than two-thirds of the individuals who killed themselves were 50 or older, suggesting the increase was not driven by former troops returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, the VA last year reported an uptick in suicides among young veterans, and a Pentagon report in January showed that suicides by active military personnel have stood at record levels for five consecutive years, including more than 280 last year.
“The suicide rate among veterans is staggering and beyond heartbreaking,” Ellen Goosenberg, the documentary’s director, said in an HBO interview. “The best way to survive the psychological wounds of war or to help someone you love who is suffering is to reach out. And that’s the message of this film.”
The VA crisis line (800-273-8255) is a toll-free, confidential resource. It’s responders are trained to deal with issues ranging from anxiety and depression to chronic pain and homelessness.
The call center has answered more than 1.1 million calls since it opened in 2007, according to a VA fact sheet. The crisis line has included online-chats since 2009 and texting since 2011.