As a teenager growing up in Wheeling, West Virginia, Justin Miller wanted nothing more than to get out and join the armed forces. He tried a couple times; after the planes struck the World Trade Center on September 11, he met with a recruiter but was turned away after meeting with some personal objections from the recruiter. At that point in his life, he’d already given up his passion for baseball and turned to drugs and alcohol, following in the footsteps of his father, who was himself an addict.
But strangely, it was his father who encouraged Miller to again try to join up, and in 2003, he was successful; it was a different recruiter this time, who understood where Miller was coming from. But his two tours through Iraq shattered him. Miller’s battalion faced extraordinary violence. His platoon was tasked with preventing the placement of bombs in the bridges and roads of the al-Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, the al-Qaeda stronghold; they watched as al-Qaeda operatives executed whole families for refusing to obey orders. Both during deployment and after returning home, drug and alcohol abuse and suicides among the soldiers proliferated—a count from the Army found that over 140 soldiers deployed in Miller’s battalion in 2008 took their own lives. In 2014, seven years after returning from duty and at 30 years old, Miller was still feeling the aftershocks.
He reached out to Chris Mercado, an Army officer and friend of Miller’s who was, at the time, getting a masters degree at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, to tell him that he was contemplating suicide. “I spent the better part of six hours that night just listening, as a friend would do,” Mercado tells Fast Company. Though Mercado was not a licensed mental health practitioner by any means, his presence on the other end of the phone helped Miller begin to see the other side of his struggles.
That conversation sparked the idea for Objective Zero, a foundation and mobile application launching later this summer that will connect veterans experiencing mental distress with other veterans who can talk them through it.
Every day, around 20 veterans and one active service member take their own lives. There have been previous attempts to curtail this devastating statistic: The Department of Veteran’s Affairs offers same-day mental health assistance at over 1,000 points of care and through the Veterans Crisis Line; an app launched in 2012 called POS REP uses GPS data to connect veterans with others nearby to facilitate more face-to-face conversations; the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Dartmouth University launched a data-mining initiative in 2013 to scan veterans’ social media accounts for suicidal indicators.
The rate of suicide is trending downwards–the VA’s previous count, from 2012, found that 22 veterans took their own lives each day–hence the name Objective Zero. Mercado and Miller’s app echoes the sentiment of VA Under Secretary for Health, David J. Shulkin, who said in a statement: “We as a nation must focus on bringing the number of veteran suicides to zero.”
Objective Zero grew from Mercado and Miller’s conversation into the platform it is through the collaboration of Mercado’s Georgetown classmates, who learned about Miller’s experience through an article Mercado and Miller published on Medium in 2015. The growing team researched the issue of veteran suicide, pulling data from the VA and designing what the app could look like: It would act as a conversation platform between veterans, but also direct users to other resources and services they could pursue independently.
On the app, a veteran in distress will be able 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. When a veteran uses the app, they can also access the VA’s mental health services and look up where to get further treatment; the counselor can also recommend it.
Objective Zero has the backing of Headspace, the popular subscription-based meditation and mindfulness app, which is offering its normally $150 services free-of-charge to veterans registered through Objective Zero. As will Comeback Yoga, a Colorado-based nonprofit that instructs military personnel in yoga specifically to relieve post-traumatic stress; Comeback’s videos will be available through the app.
A Kickstarter the Objective Zero team launched in January raised $35,000; other fundraising efforts, through events and social media, have brought in another $50,000 to develop the app. “The structure of the app is borne out of what the data tells us,” Mercado says. “What we found is by increasing social connectedness among veterans, providing access to resources, and improving access to care, we can lower suicide rates.”
Mercado is clear-eyed about the fact that the app will not be able to solve the problem–veterans are twice as likely to die from accidental opioid overdoses than non-veterans, and as the opioid epidemic continues unabated in the U.S., and while the VA has recognized the link between time in the armed forces, chronic pain, and opioid addiction, and taken steps to reduce the use of opioid painkillers in prescribed treatment regimens, the effects linger. “But just because we can’t help everyone, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to help somebody,” he says.
There are currently around 23 million veterans in the U.S.; the Objective Zero team will be coordinating with the VA to help get veterans registered on the app once it’s available later in the summer.