An unidentified member of the 1776 Restoration Movement called on followers to flood the phone line of the VA's Veterans Crisis Line with protest calls. Screenshot from 1776RM livestream video.
As a Jan. 6 activist group encouraged its followers to flood the national Veterans Crisis Line — or 988 — to "let them know" the group's political views, one veteran on the other side of the country came within minutes of completing suicide when she was unable to reach help in a desperate moment.
The call for prank phone calls came from a group calling itself the 1776 Restoration Movement, during a live webstream of the group's Monday, Sept. 19, protest in Washington, DC. The group refers to those facing Jan. 6-related charges as "political prisoners" and to the jails some are in as the "DC Gulag."
Christine, an Army veteran in Oregon who asked to be identified only by her first name, told Coffee or Die Magazine that she was unable to get through to the crisis line despite calling "four or five" times during the group's webcast. She had been experiencing a mental health crisis over the weekend that had kept her from sleeping, she said, and felt that "the only thing I have left is the crisis line."
An unidentified member of the 1776 Restoration Movement holds up his phone showing the Veterans Crisis Line number, 988, to encourage his viewers to call the hotline and push the group’s political views. Screenshot from 1776RM livestream video.
Unable to reach anyone on the line, she said, she was "setting things up" for an attempt at self-harm when she learned about the crisis line stunt.
"I said, 'Oh my god, are you serious?' So that kind of stopped me on my process for setting things up," she said. "I said, 'Hell no, they're not going to take my life. I'm not gonna let them win.'"
The VA did not return an email from Coffee or Die seeking information on call volumes on the 988 line Monday. The Veterans Crisis Line is run by the VA and is reached by pressing 1 after dialing the new National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 988, which is active in most states.
Christine had used the line before, she said.
"It's actually saved me once," she said. "I'm a success story with them."
A woman in the 10th Mountain Division puts on face paint during the camouflage and concealment task of the Expert Field Medical Badge Warrior Skills lane, May 17, 2022. A woman who served in combat in Somalia with the 10th Mountain Division in 1993 says a phone prank by a Jan. 6 activist group prevented her from reaching the VA's suicide prevention line. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Neysa Canfield.
Christine said that in the previous days, as she began to mentally slide, she had given her guns to friends, knowing that having them in her home could lead to action.
She began calling 988 early on Monday morning in Oregon — the same time frame in which the 1776 Restoration Movement was outside the VA in Washington, DC. The video of the protest, which was still online Monday night, shows three 1776 members taking turns speaking into a microphone, claiming that the VA is withholding benefits from veterans under arrest for Jan. 6-related crimes. Both also claim without specific evidence that veterans are being "tortured to death" in the "DC Gulag."
At the 2-hour, 25-minute mark of the webcast, a man wearing a red T-shirt begins speaking to the live camera, encouraging viewers to call 988, holding up his own phone to show the 988 number.
“So you dial 988," he says. "They've made it easier than ever to call so you dial 988 and then press 1. So. Let them know, that there is inhumane treatment going on at the DC jail. Over half of the political prisoners in there are veterans, most of them combat veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Let them know about the inhumane treatment and that nobody's doing anything and that the American people expect the VA to get right in the middle of this."
At least one person in the archived YouTube chat accompanying the video indicates they have made a call.
A voice that appears to be from the camera operator eventually suggests caution on using the line but agrees that the plight of the Jan. 6 defendants should be treated as a "crisis" and therefore is a legitimate topic for a call.
“It's a crisis hotline," the camera operator says. "It's not just for suicide, so yeah, just let's not hammer it too heavy, let's make sure that we leave space for anybody that is going through it and actually a crisis at the moment. But I believe, you know, a call every once in a while will help get the message across. But let's not flood it too bad because we don't want somebody that is in a serious crisis to be denied that because of our phone calls, guys.”
In Oregon, Christine was getting cut off.
"It wasn't working," she said. "I said, 'This is fucked; it doesn't even work.'"
The Veterans Crisis Line is now accessible through the national Suicide Prevention hotline, 988. Image courtesy VA.
She then called a traditional suicide hotline that, she said, routed her back to the VA line when she indicated she was a veteran.
There, again, she was cut off.
After the last failed call, she said, she gave up.
"I've been sober for eight years, so I almost went to the liquor store to get some courage," she told Coffee or Die. "I went out to my garage, and I was going to do some bad things, and I'll leave it at that."
Suicide among veterans remains high, though information released Monday by the VA appeared to indicate that numbers are trending down.
An email sent to the 1776 group's website was answered with an unsigned claim that the group had not called for a flood of calls: "If you saw the video then you also know that I instructed my viewers not to flood the lines cause if there is someone needing to get through and is in a crises then they need to be able to get through. I do not know if there was much participation. I do know these guys are veterans and they are in crises! Thank you"
However, by late Monday, another video emerged of the same group wherein the same man appeared to be pleased with the "awareness" the stunt had drawn, with the man in the red T-shirt bragging that "the trolls took the bait." He goes on to imply that the crisis hotline is not for emergencies.
Christine received word of the stunt from a tweet sent by William Attig. Attig runs Union Veterans, a veterans outreach arm of the AFL-CIO. An Army infantry combat veteran whose office is near the VA, Attig told Coffee or Die that he felt compelled to confront the group when he realized he was nearby.
In a video of the brief confrontation, Attig asks the protesters if they are responsible for the calls. Each says they have not "personally" called the hotline, but one says "we sent them."
Attig immediately leaves, shouting at the group, "You should be ashamed of yourself."
"I was so angry I decided I needed to leave," he said. "This isn't political."
Attig even said that at "the nuts and bolts" level, the group is right that if veterans awaiting trial are missing out on VA benefits allowed by law to those behind bars, change may be needed. But, he said, he has studied and worked on the topic of veteran suicide and thinks the lifesaving nature of the crisis hotline should put it beyond politics.
"The vet suicide line is a no-go zone," he said.
Christine said her post-traumatic stress dates to 1993 when she was in the then-rare position of a woman facing direct combat in the Army as a military police officer attached to the 10th Mountain Division. She was with a group of MPs assigned to the 10th Mountain's task force in Somalia in 1993, a precursor to the Ranger-led task force chronicled in the movie Black Hawk Down. Several members of her MP unit were killed in direct fighting with local militias.
Her outrage on Monday, she said, was also fueled by disappointment, knowing that many of 1776's supporters are veterans themselves.
"It had to be a veteran's idea," she said of the phone pranks. "No civilian would think of that."
Coffee or Die Magazine staff writer Lauren Coontz contributed to this story.
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Matt White is a former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine. He was a pararescueman in the Air Force and the Alaska Air National Guard for eight years and has more than a decade of experience in daily and magazine journalism.
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