This is the seventh piece in Fast Forward’s 2018 Accelerator Series featuring the Objective Zero Foundation co-founder team: Justin Miller, Blake Bassett, Kayla Bailey, Chris Mercado, Betsey Mercado, and Amy Eastman.
Sgt. Justin Miller was in Iraq, deep into his 11-year service in the Army, when he witnessed a moment that haunts him to this day. “I was on foot patrol in Anbar Province and two kids, a young boy and girl, walked up to me, tugging at my hands, and pulled me into a courtyard,” he said. Moments later, a bomb exploded where Justin had been standing. Those children had saved Justin’s life. A few weeks later, another bomb went off. This time, one of his fellow soldiers was killed, along with the young boy and girl.
Justin retired from the Army with brain damage, back problems, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Years later, Justin found himself sitting at home in Little River, South Carolina with unbearable depression. “I had no one to talk to,” Justin said, “I didn’t want to talk to my wife and family. I didn’t want to put that burden on them.” He remained in a deep depression until one day friend and fellow veteran Major Chris Mercado gave him a call.
After hearing about Justin’s periled state, Chris told him, “You don’t sound too good.” “I’m not,” Justin told him, “I’m falling apart.” “Are you thinking about suicide?” Chris asked. Justin told him that he’d contemplated suicide that morning. He also shared that he’d reached out to the veteran support line, but had been given a wait time of two days, which was two days too long. Chris spent the next six hours on the phone with Justin, listening, acknowledging his pain, and talking him through to the next day. This phone call saved Justin’s life.
The Big Idea
20 veterans die by suicide every day – a rate 2.1X higher than the non-veteran population. Objective Zero aims to bring this number to 0 through an app that provides veterans with on-demand mental health support.
Crowdsourcing Life-Saving Conversations
Soon after, Chris published an article about his call with Justin and gathered a group of Georgetown University classmates to brainstorm ideas for reducing suicides in the veteran and military communities. Among these students was Blake Bassett, an Army veteran who had a background in mobile app development and had helped launch a ride-sharing app in 2012. The group realized if they paired the same on-demand, crowdsourcing technology in ride-sharing apps with Twilio, a secure cloud communication platform, they could replicate Chris and Justin’s call on a massive scale to instantly connect veterans with peer support.
The connection needed to be rapid, as the first five minutes after an individual begins considering suicide is a critically important time period. And, it needed to work every single time. According to Justin, “Veterans can’t call a support line that goes to voicemail.” The product was dubbed Objective Zero, which co-founder Betsey Mercado said, “will help us reach our objective, zero veteran suicides.”
A Promise for Suicide Prevention
Shortly after, Chris invited Blake and Kayla Bailey, a Marine Corps veteran and Objective Zero’s future Chief Technical Officer, to Arlington National Cemetery to meet Justin. When they arrived, Chris and Justin were standing behind Debra Hays, who was kneeling with tears streaming down her face in front of a headstone. The headstone memorialized her son Thaddeus Montgomery, who Chris recalls, “Had been one of my Soldiers when I first commissioned into the Army. Sadly, Thaddeus was one of the first Soldiers I lost to suicide.”
After the group recounted memories of Thad, they told Debra about the plans for Objective Zero. When Debra heard about the idea, she told them, “You have got to do something about this. No mother should feel the way I feel right now.” Blake vividly recalls looking at Debra in the eyes and telling her, “I promise you we’re gonna do something about this.” It was a promise that would eat at the group, as work and life got in their way and Objective Zero sat on the back burner.
Making Good on a Promise
A year later, Blake received a call from David Wood, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, who had just finished writing What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars. The book examined the hidden wounds of war that plague many veterans returning from places like Iraq and Afghanistan – veterans like Justin Miller. David had seen Objective Zero’s nascent website and was interested in discussing the project. They met and discussed the moral injuries faced by today’s warfighters, and how these injuries were contributing to the veteran suicide crisis in the United States.
The conversation was the final straw. Blake decided to leave his prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship to focus on Objective Zero. Shortly thereafter, the team submitted the paperwork to incorporate Objective Zero as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Now, the team needed to build an app.
The Objective Zero team launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised $38,000 (exceeding their goal). The group of then-volunteers got to work developing the product: an on-demand app that instantly connects veterans to veteran and civilian peer supporters (called Ambassadors in the app) and resources for suicide prevention and wellness. Among those Ambassadors is Debra, Thaddeus’ mother. Co-founder Amy Eastman said, “If we could harness all the ‘Momma Bears’ of the world like her, we’d be unstoppable.”
Civilians Giving Back to Veterans
Objective Zero makes it easy to volunteer as an Ambassador. To onboard, prospective Ambassadors must take the in-app suicide prevention training and pass a post-training assessment. To date, Objective Zero has on-boarded over 1,000 Ambassadors, with representation in all 50 U.S. states and over 10 countries across the globe.
“Who better to help a veteran who’s transitioning out of military into civilian capacity than a civilian? Someone who can help connect them to job opportunities and give them a different perspective,” Blake shared. “We’ve seen that many veterans prefer to talk to civilians instead of other veterans because they feel like they can be more open, that they’ll face less judgement, which has been a heartening finding.”
Betsey recalls a recent life-changing connection between a homeless veteran and an Ambassador. “The veteran had been living in his broken down car and needed resources.” He sought out help on the Objective Zero app. “The Ambassador was not only able to find a shelter for the veteran, they were able to link the veteran with employment resources as well,” she shared. Betsey said that connections like these are critical to, “Help us reach our objective, zero veteran suicides.”
Since launching the app in December 2017, Objective Zero has facilitated thousands of similar interactions between its Ambassadors and veteran users. But with over 20 million U.S. veterans, they have a ways to go to ensure every veteran knows about the resource. To meet this goal, Objective Zero is partnered with organizations like Psych Armor, AMVETS, Give An Hour, and others to tap into their distribution networks to expand Objective Zero’s reach.
The Future of Veteran Suicide Pre-Emption
In the near term, Objective Zero’s goal is to reach 1 million veterans by 2022. “The way that we’re going to do that,” Blake explained, “is through groundbreaking technology we’re working on right now.” Objective Zero has created a patent pending machine learning algorithm that identifies when an individual is at-risk for suicide and instantly delivers lifesaving resources to them. Objective Zero co-founder Kayla Bailey, a Carnegie Mellon-educated engineer, is leading the project.
Kayla explained how the technology will collect textual, biometric, and geo data to establish healthy baseline behavior for an individual. Then, the app will monitor for deviations that correlate with increased suicide risk. When deviations are detected, the algorithm will calculate a risk score and dispatch tailored resources depending on where the user falls on the risk spectrum. “For instance,” Kayla explained, “if a user typically exercises three times a week and then, all of a sudden, he or she hasn’t left their house in a week, the app may send them a reminder to exercise and, in more serious instances, notify their friends to check in on them.”
An ambitious undertaking, Objective Zero is working in partnership with data scientists from Intel Corp, Microsoft, and the United States Military Academy. “This technology will allow veterans to get the help they need without them having to ask for it,” Blake said. Machine learning will enable Objective Zero to go beyond prevention to pre-emption. When veteran lives are at risk, proactive support is not only critical, it can be the difference between life and death.
“Were it not for that very special moment where two brothers-in-arms connected,” Chris said, “we may not have realized that the simple act of listening can save a life.” Today, Justin is proud to share that through technology, Objective Zero is, “Building a one-stop shop where veterans and service members can find resources about where to get help at the palm of their hand.” Justin said it’s all about finding, “… Somebody willing to listen, somebody who just wants to let you know that you’re loved and how important you are… who just wants to help you get to the next day.”
Sign up to volunteer as an Ambassador. “Even a few minutes a week could save a life.” – Objective Zero