Texting Program Helps Vets

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Losing men and women is a heartbreaking but unavoidable fact of war.

But losing them once they’ve made it home in one piece is unacceptable.

Nothing is more gut-wrenching than imagining that a person can be so broken and so alone that he actually believes dying is the only possible way to end the pain.

Yet 18 veterans, who dodged bullets and bombs in the service of their country, kill themselves daily. That’s 6,570 veteran suicides a year, a figure New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called “shameful.”

When presented with an opportunity to save those lives, Brad Beasley leapt at the chance.

Beasley lost a cousin, a Vietnam vet, to suicide years ago. It still troubles him.

He owns San Antonio-based Crosslink Media, a mobile marketing firm that develops text messaging systems for companies such as Santikos Theatres and the military exchanges. When you sign up for the Santikos Mobile VIP program, for example, you’re seeing Crosslink’s handiwork.

Crosslink last year won a Veterans Affairs contract to add a text messaging component to the Veterans Crisis Line.

Getting help to veterans, says Krista Stephenson, VA’s deputy national suicide prevention coordinator, is a major effort. The VA has established communications hubs around the country, staffed around the clock, accessible via the Crisis Line’s toll-free number or live Web chat. It doesn’t stop there. Trained counselors monitor comments logged on the VA’s Facebook page for messages that might set off red flags.

The Veterans Crisis phone line, launched five years ago, has logged more than 600,000 calls, the agency says, and has made more than 21,000 life-saving rescues. Three years ago, it added online chat, which has helped more than 50,000 people.

Text messaging, Stephenson says, was the logical next step.

The youngest vets are members of the first generation, Beasley says, to grow up with a cellphone. For them, texting is the preferred use of the device, with some logging thousands of messages monthly.

Texting, Stephenson says, makes it easier for younger vets to take the first step.

“These are people who might not have reached out to us in any other way,” Stephenson says. “We’ll hear comments such as ‘I’m glad I’m able to text you because I can’t talk to anyone in person.’ Or it will be in the middle of the night and they don’t want to wake anyone. Or they’re at their job or at school and aren’t able to talk.”

Texting gives the veteran a nice cushion of anonymity. Anyone with kids knows that a younger person can be texting furiously while looking you in the eye, pretending to listen. Surreptitiously texting while parents speak is bad, but surreptitiously texting a crisis line so that co-workers or family members don’t know is a life-saver.

The VA created the short code 838255, or VETALK. Beasley’s team came up with a Web-based dashboard, accessible only by VA responders, which handles incoming messages. He also convinced the nation’s wireless carriers to waive all fees associated with that code.

Once a text is received, VA counselors will respond via text within seconds.

The idea, Beasley says, bears a basic resemblance to any other mobile marketing project Crosslink creates — convert text messages into business. For Santikos, that’s getting message recipients into a theater. For the VA, that’s leading the troubled person into a phone conversation, then ultimately to a face-to-face counseling session. Crosslink’s software guides them through that process.

“The whole goal,” he says, “is to get that vet comfortable enough to receive a phone call. The idea is that a counselor will be able to say ‘May I call you at this number?’”

So far, however, Crosslink’s texting system appears to be making headway.

The system averages 370 text conversations a month, Stephenson says, and since its soft launch in November, has logged more than 2,000 conversations.

“It’s rewarding work,” Beasley says. “It’s real life stuff. We treat all of our (business customers) well, but this is literally life and death. That means a lot to me.”

rbragg@express-news.net. Read Bragg’s blog at http://blog.mysanantonio.com/atlarge Follow @roybragg on Twitter

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