Addressing Veteran Suicide Head-on: Q&A With Oscar Winner Ellen Goosenberg Kent

One number: 22. That's all it took to transform Ellen Goosenberg Kent from a filmmaker to a woman on a mission. "When I heard that 22 veterans are killing themselves every day, I thought: This is outrageous. That's almost one every hour. I had to do something," she said.
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One number: 22. That's all it took to transform Ellen Goosenberg Kent from a filmmaker to a woman on a mission. "When I heard that 22 veterans are killing themselves every day, I thought: This is outrageous. That's almost one every hour. I had to do something," she said. Goosenberg Kent was already a strong voice on veterans' issues. In 2007 she partnered with the late James Gandolfini to create Alive Day Memories, a heartwrenching documentary in which soldiers from the Iraq War reflected on the days they almost died in combat.

But suicide, that was a silent epidemic, one that needed to be addressed head-on. "I kept thinking: How can I make that number real for people? When I learned about the Veterans Crisis Line," a suicide hotline created by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2007, "I realized that this was an opportunity, a chance to capture a glimmer of hope in a sea of suffering."

The director convinced the V.A. to grant her access to the crisis line's Canandaigua, NY., facility, where she spent the next three months filming trained responders as they answered calls from suicidal veterans, some of them armed and ready to act. Goosenberg Kent spliced her footage into a 40-minute film that crackles with a disquieting, nervous energy. The movie has more drama than any action picture released this year and a greater grasp of the soldier experience than most of the war films of the last decade.

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 premiered on HBO last November. In February it won the Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject). And today, Independence Day, as millions nationwide honor our vets, Americans have the chance to watch the film with family, through HBO Go, Google Play and Amazon Instant Video.

Goosenberg Kent spoke with me about her film, the importance of the suicide hotline, and what each of us can do to help our veterans.

Kors: I have to challenge you about that statistic: 22 veteran suicides a day. It comes from the V.A., and you cite it in the beginning of the film. But how can we possibly know a number like that?

Goosenberg Kent: It's an estimate. We spent a lot of time trying to vet it. But it's very difficult to reliably gather suicide statistics. My sense is that the real figure may be much larger, that veterans' suicides are widely underreported. But even if it is just 22 — one is too many. So 22 is insane.

Kors: And yet your film spends no time casting blame, not on the administration, not on the V.A. It's focused on the crisis hotline responders, who display such intelligence and empathy as they to talk these veterans down from the brink.

Goosenberg Kent: That's right. There's a lot of blame to go around when it comes to these suicides. And exploring who is to blame is important. But I realized, we had an opportunity here, a chance for a fresh perspective by focusing on the good guys, the responders who are using compassion, training and focus to save lives. As a filmmaker, I wanted to do more than present the problem. I wanted to offer a lifeline of hope. That's what the Veterans Crisis Line is.

Kors: It's Ground Zero for the epidemic.

Goosenberg Kent: Absolutely. At the call center, it's wave after wave of veterans, alone, in the dark, crying out for help. You spend a little time there, and you really get the scope of the problem.

Kors: How did you get access to the facility?

Goosenberg Kent: Well, the V.A. had let the New York Times in for a piece they produced in 2010. But what we wanted was a whole different level of access. Basically, we wanted to embed, to be there for three or four months and just watch the place work, to hear the soldiers in crisis and watch the responders as they assist them.

Kors: That's one of the amazing ironies of the film: it captures the voice of veterans better than so many other movies, and yet the only voices in the movie are the responders', not the callers'.

Goosenberg Kent: Because the V.A. doesn't tape the calls.

Kors: It doesn't?

Goosenberg Kent: No, it doesn't. That surprised us too. We thought it would be like 911, which records all of its calls. But veterans' conversations with the responders are just between them. To get access to the call center, we had to commit to not taping those calls either. Which meant that, with one side of the conversation, we didn't know what we had. We didn't know if there was enough to make a film.

Then we came back from our first few days of shooting and watched the footage. There was a call from a 20-year-old veteran whose best friend died in his arms. Maureen, [one of the crisis hotline responders], talked to him in a way that was incredibly moving. He thought this life was over, and she was able to seize on his ambivalence, keep him from acting on his impulse. She bought him some time to reconsider living, to realize that he wasn't responsible for his friend's death. On another call, Luis, who was an Army sergeant before becoming a responder, he talked about going through combat in such a powerful way. The caller was crying so loudly, you could hear it over the phone. Luis was emphatic. He told him: "If you ever feel like this again, you pick up the phone." I thought we were going to be hearing phone therapy, but wow, this was different.

Dana Perry, who produced the film, her son committed suicide. When we first got to call center and started watching the responders, she got so silent. I asked her what's going on, and she said, "It never occurred to me to call a hotline. Maybe if he had a hotline on the day he killed himself, maybe he wouldn't have done it." I realized, this is a message we had to get out to military families: There's a place you can call, a place where you can be heard.

Kors: Were you worried that your film would look like a 40-minute commercial for the V.A.?

Goosenberg Kent: I was. But the failures of the V.A. have been amply reported. I was more concerned that there was this hotline out there, a bright light with top-notch people ready to help, and many military families didn't even know it existed.

Kors: It is amazing how many veterans I talk to who are in crisis but don't know about the hotline or have never thought to call.

Goosenberg Kent: Exactly. The longer we filmed at the call center, the more urgency I felt to tell soldiers what a resource they had there. I remember one call, an Army sniper who said, "I saw a child get blown away." He wasn't able to tell that story to his buddies or his wife. But to the responder, he could. It was an amazing moment. It was the beginning of something.

Kors: In the film, none of the calls end in suicide. Did you film any calls that ended unsuccessfully?

Goosenberg Kent: No, we didn't capture anything like that. I know that occasionally it does happens. But not as often as you might think. When it does, usually the responder will find out much later: "You took a call a few weeks ago from a Marine in crisis. He didn't make it." But that didn't happen while we were there.

Kors: Recently the Crisis Line has drawn fire from vets who say they called, needing immediate assistance, and instead were put on hold. I know Senator Bill Nelson has been looking into this. Was this a problem that you saw during your time at the call center?

Goosenberg Kent: No, I didn't see anything like that. Believe me, if I saw responders putting veterans on hold, I would not have ignored that. But that's not how the call center is set up. Responders don't have a queue, with blinking lights for callers they have to get to. The center has 255 responders. And when each of them is talking with a veteran, the calls are rolled over to backup centers, which are also staffed with trained responders. I met several of them.

Kors: Did you ever meet a veteran who called the Crisis Line?

Goosenberg Kent: I did. The New America Foundation was screening our film, and a veteran at the screening told me she called the Crisis Line. She had been sexually assaulted while serving and was struggling with that. She said the Crisis Line saved her. To hear that from a veteran, in person, it was wonderful. She said that after the call, she got herself to a better place and got involved with [the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America].

Kors: It is tough, though, for veterans to get to a place where they're ready to call and ask for help.

Goosenberg Kent: I think it is. That's part of the culture that I was hoping to chip away at, this idea that only the weak pick up the phone and ask for help. I remembering reading a series of articles about soldiers being bullied for seeking help, including soldiers at Fort Carson who were actively discouraged from seeking help. That was heartbreaking to me, and when I made this film, those articles very much in my mind. I wanted veterans to see that asking for help is actually a sign of strength. It's an act of courage, one that doesn't make you any less of a hero. In fact, it's the beginning of getting your life back together.

Kors: Nonetheless, I bet a lot of civilians will see the movie and say, "It's sad to hear that so many vets are in crisis. And it's good that these responders are helping some of them. But either way, there's not really anything I can do about it."

Goosenberg Kent: No. That's not true at all. In fact, that's exactly the opposite of what I hope people will take from the film.

Kors: What do you want them to take from the film?

Goosenberg Kent: That they can be part of the solution. Even people with no training in psychology or counseling. You can ask a veteran how he's doing. Let him know that you're available to listen.

The worse feeling in the world is a sense of isolation. That's what I learned from my time at the Crisis Line. You don't have to have gone to war to understand pain or trauma, or empathy or understanding. The responders provide an example of how to open the lines of communications, how to be part of a conversation that all of us can engage in.

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