New Mexico hotline aims to aid and inform soldiers
Jorge Arroyo served in the United States military for eight years. The Puerto Rican-born serviceman was on active duty in the Army until 2004, then joined the Air National Guard. He's been stationed in Kentucky, Germany, Kuwait and Baghdad.
He was with the National Guard in New Orleans after Katrina hit. His time there got him thinking. About life. About violence. And even though he was committed to eight more years in the service, he wasn’t feeling good about finishing his term.
"I really didn't want to be in the military, not even the Guard, after I got out of the active Army," he says. "I didn't have good experiences in Iraq, obviously. I don't like the military lifestyle—the violence."
Arroyo was going through a divorce and attending counseling sessions. "A lot of things were going on in my life because of me being in the military for so long."
But the people in his unit, they knew him—really knew him. They'd worked alongside one another and served together. An avenue for departure didn't seem immediately available. Through AWOL Magazine, Arroyo discovered the GI Rights Hotline. He called. He spoke to a representative, who pointed him toward some regulations that might help him find a way out. "Even though I had been in the Army, and I had been in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I could still file as a conscientious objector," Arroyo says.
But it wasn't quite that easy. "You're basically going to your boss and the people you work for and saying, I think our job is wrong. I think we're not helping.” He says he wasn't made an outcast, exactly, but he had plenty of tension with the higher-ups. "They were just thinking I was lying because I didn't want to serve. I can understand that. But that wasn't the case."
Nobody within your command is going to help you with this decision, Arroyo says, or with figuring out how to make it happen. The support the GI Rights Hotline afforded him was invaluable, he adds.
Arroyo is glad to return the favor to other soldiers who find themselves in his position. He's joined a group of New Mexicans looking to start a local hub of the national hotline on Feb. 15 that will have any incoming phone numbers with 505 or 575 prefixes routed to it. "I hope this helps," Arroyo says.
Maria Santelli is coordinating the effort to create a local call center that will hook up New Mexican service members with local agencies that can help them with anything they need. The hotline will also point troops toward medical help, psychological aid, suicide prevention, civil rights information and discharge information. The hotline is a "politically neutral" zone, Santelli says. "We want to be there as that line of support, no matter what your politics are." And, she adds, supporting our troops means more than just sticking a yellow ribbon to your car.
Santelli comes to our interview armed with some stunning numbers. An August Army Suicide Event Report stated 2006 had the highest rate of military suicides in 26 years. CBS News reports that more than 6,250 veterans killed themselves in 2005. That's an average of 17 suicides a day.
New Mexico, Santelli says, has a proportionately high number of service members. "We meet our burden," she says. "Our country calls, and New Mexico comes." Santelli estimates the all-volunteer hotline will only cost a few thousand dollars to get off the ground. In addition to a training session in El Paso, Texas, on Feb. 1 and 2, monthly sessions will be held in Albuquerque for volunteers.
Santelli also works for Another Side: Truth in Military Recruiting, an organization that focuses on providing high school students an alternate view of the information they receive from recruiting officers. Through her involvement in that project, Santelli began to get phone calls where she used to work at the Peace and Justice Center. Mothers called saying their children signed up for the delayed-entry program, a promise under-18 students make to the military to join once they're of age. A woman phoned saying her husband had discharged himself, gone AWOL, and she wanted to help him.
Learning as she went, Santelli provided the answers as best she could, and referred callers to people who could help with their problems.
Santelli is no longer working with the Peace and Justice Center. "That word 'peace' carries a lot of baggage for service members," she says, and it sometimes has a negative association with anti-soldier movements from the Vietnam era. In preliminary outreach efforts with the New Mexico National Guard, response to the hotline has been positive so far. "The logo is a helmet with the fist in it. The fist is used for power. It's GI empowerment. It's been received very well."
Santelli says she hopes the hotline will aid service members who may have had bad experiences in the military, who are hesitant to "go back to the dog that bit you." For Alison Kerr, whose husband will leave for seven months in Iraq at the end of February, the hotline serves as a place she can go for advice that isn't military-based. That's important to Kerr, as she does not support the Iraq War. "It's been very difficult for us to balance knowing that I am certainly against the war, but my husband's just trying to do his job. That's a real source of tension for us."
Kerr says she's frustrated by people who pay lip service to supporting the troops, who thank her for her sacrifice, but who aren't contributing. Even worse—it seems to Kerr that many have forgotten the war altogether. "My feet are so firmly planted in the civilian world. People don't often remember that this war is happening."
Bruce Clark served in the Marine Corps in the late '70s, and his son, Bradley, is in Iraq right now. Bradley's been deployed there for just a couple of months. Bruce Clark will be on the board of directors for the New Mexico hub of the GI Rights Hotline. "A lot of guys out there are going into the military or thinking about going to the military, and they're confused and don't really know what they're getting into. That's one of the things we're going to be helping with," Clark says.
There’s still much to be done—even after most of our troops leave Iraq, Kerr points out. Veterans rights are becoming increasingly poor, she says, and the GI Rights Hotline needs to be in place for a long time. "My focus has shifted from wanting my husband not to leave to wanting him and the people he works with to come home and be treated well when they come home."