A Life Saving Swipe: Major Mercado & Objective Zero
U.S. Army Major Chris Mercado had virtually no computer background when he decided technology might help save lives. The Military Times named the South Dakota native "Soldier of the Year" for his work with Objective Zero. It's a nonprofit dedicated to saving veterans' lives, one swipe at a time.
"The Objective Zero foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that I co-founded with my wife and several of my classmates at Georgetown, in order to connect veterans and combat the problem of veteran and service member suicide. We started the organization in Washington, D.C., and it is now distributed all throughout the United States, everywhere from Honolulu to California, and in D.C."
The hallmark of it, the central focus of the project is the app, right? On a mobile device?
That's right. What we're developing is mobile application technology that can connect veterans and service members, their dependents, or even military caregivers, who are experiencing a moment of crisis--potentially displaying suicidal ideations. It can connect them with either a licensed clinical therapist, a spiritual counselor, another veteran, a trained suicide prevention specialist, or even just a concerned citizen. It'll connect them instantly and anonymously.
Is the mobile app live now? Can it be used today?
It is not. What we have today is an alpha version, or the very, very first version that we're testing. At the end of July, we will go through a round of beta testings--we'll have a broad audience of testers, people who can then just experiment with the app, test it, see what its capabilities and limitations are, and help us find the bugs so that we can ensure that when we roll out on Android and that we have a stable platform.
Do you have a computer background? Is that something that's new to you as you sort of figure out the technology of this thing?
No, I don't have a computer background. I'm actually an infantryman with no experience in coding or mobile technology. I had a vision for what I wanted to achieve. I understood that existing solutions for veterans and service members were insufficient, that they weren't solving the problem. We didn't invent anything new, we didn't invent cell phones, or text messaging, or video messaging, but what we did is we combined the existing technologies in a new and innovative way that allows our veterans and service members in crisis to connect with someone instantly.
Walk me through how this will work when all the bugs are worked out and it's launched live--you just download the app on your phone like any other application, and then in a moment of crisis, you start the tapping and clicking and ... What kind of help are you going to get connected to?
That's a great question. Existing options for veterans or service members in crisis are to call Military OneSource, the Veterans Crisis Hotline, the National Center for the Prevention of Suicide, and Veterans for Warriors. Essentially, they had to call a hotline, meaning that they needed to know the number. The way the app works is once you have it downloaded onto your phone, you don't need to know the number, you don't need to know the number to a therapist, or to any of our ambassadors, really. Once it's live and on your phone, in order to connect, you need to press one button, and it's either voice, video, or text, whatever the user chooses, however they choose to connect. An algorithm will run in the phone to connect that user with available ambassadors that meet the user's criteria.
We're sensitive to the fact that some of our users might not be comfortable with speaking with certain groups, so the example that I give is, if it were my wife, and she were uncomfortable speaking to a male, for example, now she has the ability to filter her ambassadors to focus on a particular demographic, or skillset, or background. If it were a Vietnam era veteran, and that Vietnam era veteran wanted to connect with another Vietnam era veteran, they have the power to do so with the app, and they just set their filters, and they just press connect and they choose to connect via voice, video, or text, and the phone does the rest.
Who are the ambassadors, how are you connecting with people, and can people volunteer to be an ambassador?
People can volunteer to be ambassadors. This is open to the general public if they would like to help. We absolutely encourage them to do so. We believe that anybody can help save a life. The Objective Zero foundation is partnering with the VA to provide suicide prevention training. We've also partnered with a nonprofit organization called Psych Armor to also provide suicide prevention training. In addition to just concerned citizens, we also have some licensed clinical therapists, spiritual counselors, other veterans, and active duty service members who have been trained in suicide prevention. So, our ambassadors kind of run this spectrum of military and civilian, veterans, non-veterans.
Let's go back to a bit in your past, all the way back to high school and some of your early experiences in the South Dakota National Guard and in the military. You've bumped up against suicide more often than you probably ever thought that you would have. Tell me a little bit about those experiences and how they led to the idea.
That's right. As a junior in high school, in Sioux Falls, and I think at the time, broadly around South Dakota, we were experiencing a high rate of teenage suicide. At the time, I was very young. I was close to several of the people in my high school that committed suicide, if I'm not mistaken we had a handful, four, maybe five suicides—in the years following we had even more. Many of them were on our hockey team, on our wrestling team—other students in my classes as well. I was young. I felt a little powerless, and didn't really know what it was I could do to make a difference. I thought that after graduating high school that I was kind of beyond that, that I wouldn't really experience it again. After I had been in the military for several years, I had commissioned, and I was a second lieutenant. When we returned from deployment to Iraq-- my first deployment--one of our unit's captains committed suicide, and I was really stunned. I kind of believed, what I think many Americans believe, which is suicide generally affects younger people who maybe haven't built up resilience mechanisms, and here we had a more senior officer—he was married, had children, and he had taken his own life, and it was really shocking to me. And again, I felt that sense of powerless come over me.
But I didn't think it was gonna be that big of a deal. I thought maybe this would pass, and it did not. A few years later, one of the squad [members], Montgomery, committed suicide while in Afghanistan, and this one was particularly difficult for me because I was so close to Sergeant Montgomery. I felt like if only I could have been there, if only I could have said something, or known something, or done something, maybe I could have saved a life. Again, I felt powerless. I felt like someone had taken control away from me, and in the ensuing years after Sergeant Montgomery committed suicide, many more of my NCOs started to come forward, and they would reach out and contact me, and I decided that I needed to take action. I could no longer remain powerless—I needed to regain control.
What kind of stories were there telling you? Did you have a sense, at the time, that there was a theme? Why are the numbers so high for veterans and active duty military personnel?
That's a great question. Really, I think, the honest answer is that there's a number of factors. There's no one single explanation that can answer that question. For every individual, what I have found, is that it's a very deeply personal, and almost intimate problem set that they're dealing with. Sometimes, it's an accumulation of multiple factors, sometimes it's a single major factor. They could be relationship [problems] or marital, they could be dealing with depression or post-traumatic stress, it could be experiences they had in combat, or feelings of regret for never having gone to combat. There really are just a number of factors that play in. Again, I think for everyone, it's an individual demon that they're grappling with.
So I couldn't give you a single explanation that would cover everything, but if I were to sum it up, I think, probably the two that I've observed the most, would be a lack of meaningful purpose, and a lack of meaningful relationships. By that, I mean, people have lost their purpose after they've left the military. When they're in the military, when they're deployed, they have a tremendous sense of purpose, and a sense of contribution to something larger than themselves. When they leave the military, often times that sense of purpose stays. They also lose a lot of those close relationships that they forged, and now they're kind of alone in the world, and they're no longer a part of that larger purpose and those close relationships they once had.
Have you struggled with that yourself throughout your career, especially as people around you are suffering? Who have you reached out to?
I've personally gone through major depression, after my third deployment. It was my third deployment, it was my second deployment to Afghanistan, but third overall. I had been injured. it was a non-combat related injury in Afghanistan—hurt my back, gained a lot of weight, wasn't able to do the physical activities that the army required of me. I was really concerned that I didn't have a future in the military anymore if I couldn't perform. I was never suicidal myself. I understood what it was to go through that depression, where I didn't feel like I could contribute to that larger purpose. Quite honestly, it was my relationships, specifically with my wife and my kids, that really pulled me through. So I had a very strong support network that I could lean on. As I observe others going through similar experiences, I want to be there for them, and be that support network for them.
How hard is it for veterans and for active duty military personnel to ask for help? Is it the point of the app to make asking for help easier and more streamlined?
That's another great question. It is extremely, extremely difficult to ask for help. There is a stigma about suicide in the military, probably within our society at large, to be honest. Asking for help in the military is not something that's easy to do. We have this persona that we carry of being strong and resilient, and any kink in that armor or crack in that façade, we think is weak. Nothing could be further from the truth. The app does, and is intended to make that easier for service members and for veterans, because the app is anonymous. Anyone that uses the Objective Zero mobile application can choose to remain anonymous, or they can choose to be non-anonymous—to share their identity, it's entirely up to the user, however comfortable they are. What we want to do is help combat that [stigma] by giving someone the opportunity to remain anonymous and just talk to someone. There's no value judgment attached.
I was on the website earlier, objectivezero.org, and there's a blog there, and the content on that blog is so compelling. So first, I commend you on that, on those resources there, and recommend that everybody subscribe to it. How are you sort of handling the information—the education, and the awareness portion of the Objective Zero foundation, for those who might use the app and for the rest of American citizens who are trying to learn more?
Sure. In the last few years, have been doing a great job shining a light on the problem of service member and veteran suicide. As you probably know, in 2012, the VA released a suicide data report, and that report was very controversial. In it, the authors noted, and they observed, that on average, every day 22 veterans commit suicide. And that number, 22, became the center of this veteran suicide topic. On the one hand, it was staggering. 22 veterans taking their lives. On the other hand, the study itself was very limited, so critics were quick to point out that the authors did not look at every state and they didn't go very far back. The states they omitted were often times those states that had the largest veteran population. So many, I think, were quite right to point out that the study was limited. So the VA, over the next four years redid that study. They were more comprehensive, they looked at every state, they looked at every veteran's records. They went all the way back to the 1970's, and they cross-checked their data against the Center for Disease Control data. What they found was equally compelling and shocking, and that's, on average every day, 20 veterans and one active duty service member take their own lives.
Of course, over the intervening years, we saw this play out on social media, like the 22 pushup challenge. There were quite a few military nonprofits that stood up to help raise awareness of veteran suicide. What we found is, that there is a lot of awareness about how this is a major problem—but what we haven't observed is that there's a lot of organizations trying to make a difference and actually taking action. So to move away from awareness, and now to start moving towards solving that problem and taking action. I think that's where we fit in, is educating the public on not only the problem, but on potential solutions as well, because that's what really matters. If we know of a problem, but don't know how to solve it, then we really haven't achieved our goal.
You were named the 2017 Army Times "Soldier of the Year." Tell me about that recognition, what it means for you, what it means for the foundation.
It's really humbling, to be candid. It's a tremendous honor, but it is also a tremendous responsibility. This is a phenomenal opportunity for the Objective Zero foundation to shine a light on the problem of veteran and service member suicide, and its solutions. But as I said, this is a tremendous responsibility ... The Military Times has placed enormous trust in me to contribute to this solution. I feel the weight of that every day, and I want to make sure that I can live up to the high standards that they've set.
What have you carried with you from South Dakota throughout your military career? What do you remember about growing up here that is a touchstone for you every day?
I could talk about that question for hours, to be honest with you. South Dakota is so important to me. Although I've been in the military now for almost 19 years and I've lived all over the world—in Germany, Alaska. I've been deployed five times to Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel's west bank, Africa, and am currently living in Hawaii. Every year, I make it a point to go back to South Dakota. I call it my pilgrimage, my ‘Mecca in the Midwest,’ and every year I want to go home so that I can recharge. When I look back on my upbringing in South Dakota, what really resonates with me is hard work, perseverance, commitment, and values. Those are the things that I think I lean on when I need some strength. I look back on my upbringing in South Dakota and there's no doubt, that's where I learned all of those things.
Let's look forward a little bit—the app has launched, and it's doing everything that you hoped for. You mentioned Sergeant Thaddeus Montgomery earlier; his family will see that, the progress that's being made. What are your hopes for this in the future for all veterans?
Wow, that's a great question, I've never been asked that question before and I'm not even entirely sure how to answer it. I think what I would say is, I'm keenly and acutely aware of the fact that I can't save everybody. Not everybody who's considering and contemplating taking their own lives can be saved. But I think what's important is that we save those that we can, and I think what I would like to see with this app is that five, ten, fifteen years from now, the VA re-does that suicide data report study and instead of being 20 veterans taking their lives every day, I think success would be defined as we eliminate military service as a distinguishing factor in suicide. In other words, having achieved that goal of bringing military suicide, the rate of military suicide, on par with that of what we see across the nation at large amongst all of our citizens and civilians.