Lenore Yarger, GI Rights Counselor
In the fall of 2000, Steve and I offered to volunteer with Quaker House as counselors on the GI Rights Hotline. We traveled to Fayetteville for a half-day “counselor boot camp” led by Alex Doty of CCCO. He gave us a brief overview of what counseling entails and life in the US military. By the end of the day, we knew how to get someone out of the delayed entry program, which is that time between when someone signs their military contract and when they report to basic training.
Our next training session was with Phil Esmonde, then-director of Quaker House. About 20 minutes into our meeting with him, the hotline rang. He said, “Steve, you take it,” and with no warning handed him the phone. From then on, we were GI Rights Counselors.
During the next few months, Steve and I volunteered one day a week answering calls on the hotline. We spent a lot of time telling people we didn’t know the answer to their questions and promising to find out and get back to them. We relied heavily on others in the GI Rights Network to give us answers and ideas. By the time we made the call back, we’d learned a little bit more.
When Phil resigned, we offered to step in and cover the hotline full time while the board conducted a search for a new director. We installed a special, hotline-only phone line in our home in Silk Hope and got to work. We had no computer or email. Phil passed on to us a paper file of information sheets about different discharges that we would mail out to callers when they wanted additional information. We had a shelf jammed with binders full of military regulations which we had to scrap and reprint every time a military regulation was updated. Our learning curve was steep, but taking calls daily helped us pick things up fast.
Our home office has changed with the times. When we needed to send information to a caller, we stopped mailing and started faxing, and eventually transitioned to email. When going to the neighbor’s to use a computer grew too cumbersome, Quaker House provided us with a laptop. We phased out paper copies of regulations as they became widely available online. By this time we only called others for help with the difficult questions. Frequently no one else knew the answers. Over the years, we got good at honing our research skills and seeking out additional resources. We shared our information with others in the network.
We think now is a good time to learn from our early experiences as we try to prepare for the future of this work and of the GI Rights Hotline. Today when we train new counselors, we give them a much more solid start than we had 23 years ago. While we don’t expect them to absorb twenty-plus years worth of information and experience all at once, we try to give them a strong overview from the beginning. We start them off listening in on live calls we take, and then we provide a lot of supervision when they first start taking calls. We tell them that one of the most important things they need to know is when they don’t know an answer. We tell them not to be afraid to get off the phone, find the answer, and call the person back.
During the pandemic in 2020, we taught a 9-week online course to train new counselors that drew from around the country. Unfortunately no one from that class has become a GI Rights counselor, but we’re not giving up. We’re about to embark on new efforts that will hopefully pull some committed individuals into this work.
While our training methods are constantly evolving, what hasn’t changed during the years is how much the people we help appreciate our services. After calling us on the Hotline, a soldier who was trying to get out of the Army recently reiterated what many have told us over the years: “You are the only person who has helped me with my situation.”
Thanks to everyone for your ongoing support to make this work possible. If you are interested in discussing becoming a volunteer counselor, please contact the Quaker House office.