A handful of protesters Monday at two Department of Veterans Affairs office buildings in Washington urged their followers to flood the Veterans Crisis Line to call attention to veterans who are jailed in D.C. for participating in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
The protesters livestreamed their gathering on at least two separate YouTube channels, calling for those watching to inundate the crisis line with calls.
One veteran in Oregon, who asked that only her first name be used to protect her identity, told Military.com she was having a "bad day" and tried to contact the hotline rather than get in-person mental health support because of an ongoing physical illness. She said she couldn't get through.
"I called 988, and I tried again, and I was like, 'OK, this isn't working. I called the old number and pressed 'one,'” said Christine, an Army combat veteran who served in Somalia, speaking of the change this summer from an 8-digit phone number to an easier to remember 988. “But I just sat there forever. Then it switched over to the main national crisis center."
A VA spokesman did not reveal how many calls the line received but said Monday that service continued and all veterans who called the suicide hotline were assisted.
"Every Veteran who called the crisis line today was able to connect immediately with caring, qualified responders -- there was no interruption of service," VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said in a statement Monday. "Veterans can always dial 988 and press 1 for free, confidential crisis support -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We at VA are here for you."
The VA did not answer followup questions from Military.com about whether veterans who called the 988 Suicide and Crisis Line were passed over to the national hotline, as Christine described.
The Veterans Crisis Line provides support, counseling and referrals to veterans in mental health crises, including suicidal ideation. In emergencies, its employees can dispatch first responders to a veteran’s location and they are trained to provide assistance specifically to veterans, who can face different challenges than the rest of the civilian population.
In 2020, the line averaged 1,756 calls per day and had roughly 300 contacts a day through chat and text programs.
A friend of Christine’s who had seen a Tweet about the Monday protest, organized by the 1776 Restoration Movement, contacted Christine about the effort surrounding the Crisis Line, and she said her overwhelming sadness instantly turned to anger.
"I know who they are and so I was like, 'Oh hell no. I'm not letting them take my life.' So I put everything away and went back in the house. I called my mom," Christine said.
Calling supporters of President Donald Trump who stormed the Capitol in an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after Joe Biden won the 2020 election "political prisoners," the protesters held signs saying "VA denies care to J6 Vets in DC Gulag," and asked those watching to phone the Veterans Crisis Line in support of the incarcerated.
The protesters livestreamed their effort for hours.
A woman on the broadcast then identified herself as Sherri Hafner, a 12-year Army combat veteran who served during Desert Storm, saying that "these guards in the D.C. Gulag are trying to kill our veterans." The woman appears in other videos posted by Freedom Express Media, a YouTube page that covers "freedom based events." An Army spokesperson confirmed Hafner's service, saying that records indicated she served on active duty for three years, then transitioned to the reserves for the better part of a decade and was an operating room specialist during the Gulf War.
A protester who identified himself as Justin Johnson to a VA official earlier in the video then showed the number for the Veterans Crisis Hotline on the livestream.
"They made it easier than ever to call," Johnson said, sporting an Operation Iraqi Freedom hat. "So let them know that there is inhumane treatment going on at the D.C. jail … and that nobody's doing anything and that the American people expect the VA to get right in the middle of this yesterday."
Military.com could not independently verify Johnson's military service.
Military.com contacted the man filming the video, David Valentine, who says he is the owner of Freedom Express Media and a member of the 1776 Restoration Movement.
"Those veterans have spoken to us via phone calls and letters, explaining how their civil rights and medical needs have been ignored," he told Military.com via email. "Some of them have medical and psychological needs that are urgently needing [sic] addressed, and this plea was a last resort call to action on their behalf."
Military.com cannot independently verify what the group is alleging, and the group has not produced proof outside of complaints from the incarcerated to validate those claims.
When asked whether the group was concerned that lines could have been jammed for veterans who may have been in crisis for suicide-related issues, Valentine said: "[The] 1776 Restoration Movement did not call the crisis hotline and jam it, causing a break in services for other honorable vets, they called only out of concern for those who have been ignored. … In no way would they ever disrupt service for fellow veterans."
In another video posted on the 1776 Restoration Movement's website from Freedom Express Media, a passerby, later identified as Will Attig, confronted the protesters, saying they should be ashamed of themselves for calling into the hotline.
At first, the protesters told Attig no, they weren't "personally" calling the suicide hotline. But when Attig left, the protesters changed their tone.
"Apparently, you guys made some type of impact with that crisis line," Valentine said to what appeared to be a handful of other attendees. "He needs to understand it's not just a suicide line, it's a crisis line. It's for people that are in crisis, and these guys are in crisis," referring to veterans arrested or detained for their actions on Jan. 6.
Attig, an Army veteran and executive director of the Union Veterans Council of the AFL-CIO, tweeted about the incident, calling the protest a "sick politician stunt."
"We have over 20 veterans commit suicide a day, 1 call to that line can save a life, and these folk cared about that 0%," he wrote.
During an interview with Military.com, Attig said that, as a veteran himself, he was angered that fellow veterans would put lives at risk to make a point.
"There are just some things that are f---ing off limits," Attig said. "And think of those poor people who are manning the lines and their jobs is to deal with veterans every day. They didn't need that."
Valentine said that Attig's claims were false and that he "is the very person that this protest was meant to put pressure on to resolve this issue."
It is unclear how attempting to flood the crisis hotline would resolve these purported issues or how Attig would be in a position to do so.
The Union Veterans Council of the AFL-CIO, which represents roughly 1 million veterans, issued a statement Tuesday condemning what it called "unconscionable political stunts."
"Yesterday, anti-American extremist members of the 1776 Restoration Movement organized a call-in action to clog the VA Suicide Crisis line in an attempt at an appalling political stunt," the statement read. "We would also like to highlight today's VA announcement that veterans' suicide is decreasing, which makes this stunt even more egregious."
During the livestream, a group member aired a phone call from Jeffrey McKellop, a retired Special Forces sergeant first class accused of assaulting law enforcement on Jan. 6, including one instance of striking a police officer in the face with a flagpole.
McKellop's lawyer, John Kiyonaga, confirmed to Military.com that it was the former soldier's voice on the line and corroborated his client’s claims.
"This place is a goddamned walking nightmare, man," the voice said, saying he was subjected to interrogation tactics and likening jail to a KGB operation. He said he was afraid that "they" would kill him by staging an overdose by putting methamphetamines or psilocybin in his food.
"Tell my children if I [don't] make it out alive, I love them with all my heart, man," McKellop said. "And they cry because my ex-wife tells 'em I'm not going to see them again."
According to the group's website, the 1776 Restoration Movement appears to be an anti-government group that subscribes to a number of disproven far-right theories -- or what they call "grievances" -- with oft-repeated rhetoric about the U.S.-Mexico border, the Department of Education's supposed indoctrination of children with Critical Race Theory and "LGBTQ propaganda," and general government persecution indignity.
Veterans and service members experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 988, Press 1. They also can text 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.