Worthiest Goal: No More Veteran Suicides

'I always felt powerless ... never knew what I could or should do' — now a useful app helps prevent tragedy

by Katherine Harris | Updated 12 Feb 2018 at 8:06 AM

An app that links struggling troops and veterans with people who can help them has been used more than 2,600 times.

The Military Times Service Member of the Year – 2017, Maj. Chris Mercado, is one of the co-founders of Objective Zero, an app that aims to help prevent veteran suicide.

Recalling the helplessness he felt after several people he knew took their own lives, Mercado said, “I always kind of felt powerless. I never knew what I could or should do.”

The tipping point in his long, arduous history of depression and suicide, much of it involving the military, came when Mercado spoke with Justin Miller, one of his soldiers in Iraq.

Justin’s story. In the fall of 2014, Justin Miller was falling apart. He was struggling with his transition out of the military and what he saw as ineffective assistance from the local Veterans Administration Hospital. He was unemployed and was abusing alcohol to cope with survivor’s guilt. Within months after leaving the military, at rock bottom, Justin was contemplating suicide.

He reached out to a friend, U.S. Army Maj. Chris Mercado, to talk. Though not a licensed, clinical therapist or a trained suicide intervention specialist, Chris did what any brother-in-arms would do: he listened. The simple act of having someone there to listen in his moment of crisis was cathartic.

He turned to Mercado, and the two spoke for hours. Miller realized that simply talking to someone who would listen to him helped him through what Mercado calls a “moment of crisis.”

Just having someone to talk to at the moment of crisis helped Miller begin to see the other side of his problems; he gained faith in life again. Chris was convinced that if Justin reflected on his experience and told his story, he could inspire other veterans who were similarly struggling.

Chris and Justin worked together to capture Justin’s experience in words. The effort restored Justin’s sense of purpose and mission, and together they published Justin’s story.

No one could deny the impact a timely conversation could have had. Mercado at the time was pursuing a Master’s program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Mercado and a few of his Georgetown classmates undertook advanced research on the issue of veteran suicide and worked hard on designing the app to make it simple and easy to use. Addressing the veteran suicide epidemic head-on, Objective Zero was born.

Get the app and become an ambassador. The mission statement for Objective Zero is, “We believe veteran suicide can be prevented through the simple act of listening.” Go beyond thanking veterans for their service; become an Objective Zero Ambassador and ask them about it. Even a few minutes a week could save a life.

Download the app and follow the steps. The app enables a veteran in distress to open the program, select voice, video, or text, and broadcast what Mercado calls a “distress signal” to those veterans signed up as ambassadors. “It’s kind of like texting 10 people at the same time, saying you need help,” Mercado says.

A veteran using the app can also access the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) mental health services and look up where to get further treatment; recommendations from a counselor are available as well.

The Objective Zero Foundation connects members of the military community with ambassadors—people trained to assist someone with depression or suicidal thoughts — and with resources that provide help. The foundation seeks to get military and veteran suicide rates to “functional zero”; the Objective Zero team is working hard to produce a tool that our brothers and sisters can use to help them in their hour of need.

The ambassadors are volunteers from across the United States — with a few from Canada and Germany — who go through three levels of training:

  • Operation SAVE: The Veterans Affairs Department training provided to anyone who’s going to interact with veterans in a suicide prevention context.
  • Psych Armor Institute: Objective Zero partnered with this nonprofit, which provides free online education for anyone caring for service members, veterans, and their families.
  • National Center for Veterans Studies: Dr. Craig Bryan, who is also on Objective Zero’s board of advisers, provides training in crisis response planning.

Mercado himself is an ambassador and said he received two separate connection requests within the first two weeks of the soft launch. “Text is the number-one method of connection,” he said. “But we’ve already had over 20 hours of connections through either voice or video combined. In one instance, I was on the line for several hours.”

A little more than 60 percent of the ambassadors are service members or veterans, and the rest are civilians — either licensed counselors and therapists or concerned citizens who just want to help.

Mercado said one thing that surprised him was how some users who are either in the military or are now veterans prefer connecting with a civilian. “We were under the impression that most vets or service members wanted to talk to someone who’s been there before and walked in their shoes,” Mercado said.

Related: A Place for America’s Warriors to Heal

But then they were contacted by a veteran who wanted to speak with someone who has no idea what serving in the military is like. That way, the ambassador could offer a fresh and unvarnished opinion. “This caused us to re-examine our assumptions,” Mercado said.The foundation is working on partnerships with the Defense Department and the VA so these agencies can offer the app as a resource to troops and veterans.

He emphasized that the foundation doesn’t want to ever lose someone’s trust, so users would be able to turn that feature off if they didn’t want to participate.

To view a short YouTube demo, click here.

Related: New Hope for the Prevention of Military and Veteran Suicides

Mercado said Objective Zero is always looking for more volunteers. “Instead of having to wait for someone to reach out for a connection, we can reach out to them.”

The idea of losing even a single veteran or active service member to the demon called suicide is spine-chilling. The number of such instances should be zero. Just looking for that social connection is the driving force behind Objective Zero. Thankfully, “we’ve got an app for that!”

Dr. Katherine (Kat) Harris is a veteran spouse, expat, and former military contractor with over 20 years of expertise in military/family transition, career counseling, higher education, organizational strategic planning, and international relations. An OpsLens contributor, she has conducted seminars and workshops for many Department of Army commands. This OpsLens article is used by permission.

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