As a Veterans Crisis Line responder, Garrett Dickinson’s first rescue — which lasted seven hours — involved figuring out the exact location of a California veteran who was planning on ending his life.

During the call, Dickinson was able to connect the veteran with his base commander and get the man additional help.

Just two hours before, Dickinson had been cleared to take calls on his own.

“I was thrown kind of right into taking on any call you can imagine, so anything from those general support calls — people maybe not having the formal and informal supports they have in their lives and needing someone to talk to — to those imminent crisis calls where they may be going through with a plan to end their life,” said Dickinson, who started with the VCL in 2012.

On average, 20 veterans commit suicide every day.

“That was my first look into where this epidemic is,” he said. “And it is an epidemic. The numbers speak for themselves. And until you can be on those front lines and hear the pain and hear the hopelessness, it’s eye-opening.”

Dickinson is now a supervisory health science specialist based in Atlanta and is helping the Topeka call center get off its feet.

The Topeka center is the third VCL site. The other two call centers are located in Canandaigua, N.Y., and Atlanta. On Monday, the first class of health science specialists, or responders, for the Topeka site began training. That group consists of 16 individuals. The center is looking to fill 140 total positions with 100 responders and 40 administrative positions. The Topeka call center is expected to take its first call on Jan. 15. Text and chat services supported by the VCL will be rolled out as the center matures, Dickinson said.

The Topeka VA will hold a hiring event on Dec. 7, where prospective employees can meet with representatives from the VCL and human resources.

“This isn’t a job, it’s a mission,” said Stephanie Davis, VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System suicide prevention coordinator. “These are the heroes who have the ability to be on the front lines in this battle against veteran suicide and we need them.”

Applicants should have a bachelor’s degree in a mental health or social sciences field. Those with crisis or emergency services experience may also be considered.

Responders go through seven weeks of training, which consists of classroom work and listening to calls with experienced responders, who help them process calls, answer questions and explain clinical decisions. They will also travel to Canandaigua and Atlanta and sit one-on-one with responders. They will then start taking calls independently.

Over the last year, the training program has been restructured, Dickinson said. A February 2016 Office of the Inspector General report found VCL training practices inadequate in some areas. A follow-up evaluation in March 2017 determined recommendations from the first report hadn’t been implemented.

Since those reports were published by the OIG, the VCL has been moved to the VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. It was previously under Member Services, which is the subject of several ongoing complaints and investigations.

Other improvements to the VCL include a comprehensive wellness program for responders and a training-of-trainers program, Dickinson said.

Veterans are at 21 percent higher risk for suicide than civilians, Davis said. The cause behind that is still being researched, but Davis said several factors may be contributing to the problem including familiarity and access to firearms and a sense of isolation.

“There really, especially if they have been in combat, there’s really no way to describe the sense of connection, that really almost intimate bond between service members,” she said. “And then when they return home, there’s really no way to recapture that. And often times, they’re coming home to a community that may not understand them.”

Davis said having the VCL is a valuable, life-saving resource.

“In talking to our veterans who have called the crisis line, I would say the majority of calls are not those dramatic rescues. The majority of calls are somebody who’s sitting at home and it’s 2 o’clock in the morning on a Thursday and they just need somebody to talk to and they are so grateful to have that warm, caring, compassionate person on the other end of the line who will stay on as long as they need and just listen.”

Since the VCL launched in 2007, it has answered more than 3.1 million calls and initiated the dispatch of emergency services more than 82,000 times. The VCL receives about 2,200 calls a day.

The Veterans Crisis Line can be reached at 1 (800) 273-8255.