Too Many Veteran Lives Lost
By Rep. Kristi Noem
That’s how many, on average, we lose every day to suicide. 20 veterans a day. 600 a month. 7,300 a year.
At least one South Dakotan, however, is dedicated to bringing that number to zero and his efforts have earned him the 2017 Army Times Soldier of the Year Award.
Major Chris Mercado, a native of Sioux Falls who I met with earlier this month, joined the military after earning his degree from USD. By 2006, he was deployed to Baghdad, and upon completion of his tour, he volunteered to serve in Afghanistan. In 2014, he was deployed to Jerusalem. His service has earned him three Bronze Star Medals, the Meritorious Service Medal, and many other honors. But maybe his most heroic act was a six-hour phone call he took in the fall of 2014.
His former squad leader, Staff Sargent Justin Miller, had recently transitioned out of the military. Unemployed, Justin was abusing alcohol to deal with survivor’s guilt and contemplating suicide. He’d hit “rock bottom.” But Chris made time to listen and the thoughts Justin had of taking his own life began to dissipate.
The following year, Justin and Chris joined to form the Objective Zero Foundation and are now building a smart phone app to instantly and anonymously connect active-duty service members, veterans, and families with someone who can help. The user has the choice of connecting with someone (a licensed therapist, minister, another veteran or service member, a concerned citizen, etc.) by phone, over text, or on a video chat. In short, the app will put a community of support at the fingertips of those who desperately need someone to listen.
This app is one tool in a network of support for our veterans and service members.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, for instance, operates a Veterans Crisis Line, which can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Meanwhile, resources like Coaching Into Care offer support to the family and friends of veterans. Engaging these hidden heroes is critical.
Nationwide, there are more than 5 million military caregivers responding to the needs of current and former service members. And I’m proud both Aberdeen and Rapid City have been recognized as “Hidden Heroes Cities,” joining a network of communities across the country that are dedicated to increasing resources for military and veteran caregivers.
There is a role each of us can play to support service members and their families – and I encourage you to with this reminder from Major Mercado, which he wrote in a 2015 editorial: “For the American public, most of whom did not participate directly in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is easy to pretend that the fight is over — or to go along as if the wars never occurred at all. For veterans like Justin, however, the battle still rages, this time on the home front. His story is a stark reminder of the human costs of war — costs easily concealed by sympathy without empathy. It demands that we never forget, calls us all to action, and reminds us of the heavy burden carried by those who bore the brunt of the fight on our behalf.”
20 veterans a day. 600 a month. 7,300 a year. It’s too many.
**** Additional Notes: The Operation Zero app will be available in late-July. Veterans can access the 24/7 Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Caregivers can access the Caregiver Support Line at 1-855-260-3274.
PHOTO: Rep. Noem Meets with Major Mercado
Left to Right: Betsey Mercado, Major Chris Mercado, Rep. Kristi Noem