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"This vital app connects veterans to talk about mental health and trauma" news article

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Three years ago, Justin Miller had a six-hour phone call he says saved his life.

Miller is a medically retired military veteran, previously serving two deployments in Iraq. The trauma of combat led him to develop severe post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury.

The nightmares didn't let him sleep, and he was scared things would never get better.

“I called the VA after having a particularly bad nightmare and told them I needed to see someone now," Miller says.

“They scheduled me an appointment for two days later. Here I am, on the verge of killing myself, and I need to wait two days to see someone.”

An average of 20 veterans die of suicide each day, a rate 20 percent higher than the civilian population.

Miller had planned to end his own life.

But before attempting suicide, Miller called his friend Chris Mercado. A fellow veteran, Mercado wasn't a trained counselor or mental health professional. He simply picked up the phone and listened to Miller talk about his pain and hopelessness and fear.

By the end of the phone call, Miller promised Mercado he wasn't going to attempt suicide. And he didn't.

That six-hour phone call was the inspiration behind a new app called Objective Zero, the brainchild of Miller and Mercado. The pair wanted to replicate their life-saving interaction on a bigger scale to reach veterans in need around the U.S.

The nonprofit app, which is currently in development, will instantly and anonymously connect veterans to other veterans who have been trained in suicide prevention and de-escalation. The veterans can then chat via text, phone, or video.

Objective Zero will also provide a range of suicide prevention resources to those in need, and a chatroom to help veterans connect to a larger community for support.

An additional activities tab has free meditation and mindfulness activities to help veterans cope with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental health issues. This feature was created in partnership with the popular app Headspace, which normally charges a fee for its service.

The name of the soon-to-be launched app was inspired by a lofty goal: Bring the amount of veteran suicides down to zero.

An average of 20 veterans die by suicide each day, a rate 20 percent higher than the civilian population. While veterans only make up 8.5 percent of the U.S. population, they account for more than 18 percent of all suicide-related deaths in the U.S.

There are more than 40,000 nonprofits dedicated to supporting veterans, but Miller and Mercado realized many veterans who die by suicide aren't connected to any resources, similar to the problem Miller had in his time of crisis.

Veterans only make up 8.5 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for more than 18 percent of all suicide-related deaths in the U.S.

The duo created Objective Zero with cofounder and app developer Blake Bassett at the helm of design. Cofounders Kayla Bailey, Ryan Pereiram, and Betsey Mercado also helped to create the app's features and marketing.

To make Objective Zero a reality, App Design Company donated more than $10,000 of free software development to the team — a generous gift that served as the majority of funding for the app.

Along with connecting veterans to veterans, the app will help connect veterans to civilians who want to help, too. Civilians will be able to sign up for a military awareness course, allowing veterans in crisis to have the option of whether they would like to connect with a fellow veteran or a civilian.

"We've found that civilians want to help veterans, but they don’t know how or don’t know how to ask veterans about their military service," Bassett says. "Our anecdotal evidence seems to suggest some veterans prefer talking about their problems with a civilian, a surprising finding that speaks to the potential for the role civilians can play in helping reintegrate our veterans after war."

Objective Zero is projected to launch in the beginning of Sept. 2017.

If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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