A film that turned the camera lens on those who work behind the scenes to keep veterans from committing suicide took home an Academy Award on Sunday night.
As the feature film "American Sniper" stole headlines and has grossed more than $428 million worldwide, a small documentary short, "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1" touched Academy members with its riveting portrayal of the employees who staff the VA's suicide hotline in Canandaigua, New York.
In their acceptance speeches, producers Dana Perry and Ellen Goosenberg Kent thanked those who answer the phones — many of whom are veterans themselves or military family members — and former service members.
"I want to thank the people at the crisis line who care for veterans as deeply as if their own lives depend on it," Kent said.
First aired on HBO in late 2013, the 40-minute documentary showcases the emotional strain the job has on employees and the deep compassion and devotion they have for troubled veterans on the other end of the line.
One crisis line staffer, Darlene, talks to a former Marine with five children, telling him that if he hurts himself, they won't have a father — that Marine — they need.
She convinces him to answer the door to emergency services by asking what his friend, whom he lost in Afghanistan, would want him to do.
In another case, crisis line workers track down a despondent sailor who hung up the phone before they could get any details from him. With a phone number and little more than a first name, they feverishly work with a phone company and base duty officers to find the service member.
After her Oscar win, Kent told Military Times that she wanted to honor veterans, their families and those who "support them in their journey home."
"We want them to know it's brave to reach out for help," she said.
Veterans Affairs officials told USA Today last week they had trouble coordinating the effort to make the movie given privacy concerns. But acting director of hotline operations Julianne Mullane said it was an important project that was worth the effort.
"I just think it's so great that it's getting all this attention and that it's going to help people call in," Mullane said.
On Monday, VA Secretary Robert McDonald said he was pleased that the film called attention to the challenges veterans face as well as the work of the crisis line staff.
"We are hopeful this documentary will help raise awareness of this important issue with the American public," McDonald said.
The VA estimates that at least 22 veterans may die by suicide every day, but that figure, derived from various sources, including the Centers for Disease Control's National Violent Death Reporting System and state death records, is not definitive.
Since it was launched in 2007, the line has fielded more than 1.35 million calls and made roughly 42,000 lifesaving rescues.
In her acceptance speech, producer Perry dedicated the film to her son Evan, who died in 2005 at age 15.
"We should talk about suicide out loud. This is for him," Perry said.
The number for the Veterans Crisis Line is 800-273-8255. Chatting also is available online at www.veteranscrisisline.net and by texting 838255.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.