When one of Maj. Christopher Mercado's former soldiers told him he was contemplating suicide, Mercado was shocked. 

Former Staff Sgt. Justin Miller said he wasn't doing well and that taking his own life might be the answer. Mercado wondered how he could help since he wasn't a trained counselor, but Miller just needed to talk to someone. 

"So I sat down for about six hours that night and stayed up all night just talking to him and listening to his story and hearing about what he'd gone through," Mercado told Army Times. 

Afterward, Mercado asked Miller if he was still having the same thoughts. Miller said no — he felt better just being able to talk it out.

Something clicked for Mercado, and he realized that sharing Miller's story might encourage other struggling veterans and service members to reach out and ask for help.

Mercado, who was in graduate school at Georgetown University, published an article on the experience. Shortly after, several students reached out and said they wanted to help do more.

Mercado didn't know it yet, but that was the beginning of the Objective Zero Foundation, aimed at providing connectedness and resources to veterans and troops who think suicide might be the only answer.

Objective Zero

Mercado, an infantry officer with the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, is the 2017 Army Times Soldier of the Year.

He and Miller co-founded the all-volunteer Objective Zero Foundation and came up with an app that allows users to chat with someone via message, video or phone call at the push of a button. This app is set to be released in July.

When you open the app, it shows a map of the people who are closest to you who are available to talk or provide comfort.

Mercado said users should already have the app downloaded before a moment of crisis hits, and the foundation wants to provide tangible incentives to download it. To do this, the Objective Zero Foundation has partnered with nonprofits, including Headspace, the meditation app.

"They are providing all of our vets and service members with free access to Headspace" as long as the user verifies his or her military service via the app, he said.

'I felt powerless'

His experience with Miller wasn't his first brush with suicide. Mercado had been affected by suicide since he was in high school.

It happened back to back. In the course of a few months, several of his friends had taken their own lives.

"It was terrible," he said. "I was young, and I never really knew what to do about it."

Once Mercado graduated from high school and joined the South Dakota National Guard in 1997, he thought he wouldn't be affected by suicide again.

"I was wrong," he said.

About 10 years later, after Mercado had entered active-duty service, he was finishing his first deployment — a two-year stint to Iraq — when one of the officers in his unit committed suicide.

"It was really unexpected," he said. "I didn't know him that well, but I also didn't see any signs or symptoms."

In 2010, one of Mercado's soldiers — and one of the first soldiers he met as a new platoon leader — committed suicide while in Afghanistan.

"I felt powerless," Mercado said. "I felt like someone had taken control away from me. That maybe I could have or should have or would have done something had I had the opportunity or only known."

Mercado hopes that the Objective Zero app will help take back the power.

"We want to get rid of military service as a factor for suicide," he said.

He acknowledges that it's unrealistic to end military suicide completely, but the foundation's goal is to eliminate military service as one of the reasons.

Mercado, now 37, joined the National Guard in 1997 and re-enlisted on active duty in 2000. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mercado chose to earn a commission because he felt he should and could do more as a soldier.

He ended up deploying during the surge of troops in Iraq from 2006 to 2008, and then twice to Afghanistan in 2008 and 2011. Mercado also completed two shorter tours to Israel and Africa.

Lt. Col. Fred Miller, Mercado's supervisor, said his efforts address "the most prolific threat to the military community."

"His professionalism and honest character will represent the values of our collective community for years to come," Miller said.  

Mercado dedicates his free time to fine-tuning the Objective Zero app, but he also makes his wife and two children a priority. He has volunteered as a youth wrestling coach, mentoring his son and other young wrestlers. He coaches and encourages children from kindergarten through middle school, creating a culture of "win or learn." Mercado helps the athletes take losses in stride while learning from them.

Through a military fellowship with the College of William and Mary's Project on International Peace and Security, Mercado assists an undergraduate student with research work on national security. 

His awards and decorations include three Bronze Star Medals, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Joint Service Achievement Medal, 10 Army Achievement Medals, and the NATO Medal.      


Charlsy Panzino covers the Guard and Reserve, training, technology, operations and features for Army Times and Air Force Times. Email her at cpanzino@militarytimes.com.