Justin Miller's 4-year-old daughter, Lydia, fell from a tree one summer afternoon in Georgia. But as she lay on the ground crying, something about the angle of her outstretched arm sent him somewhere else: An encampment in a stretch of desert in northern Iraq, between Fallujah and Ramadi.
There, nine years earlier, Miller had watched helplessly as two children bled to dearth at his feet.
"A boy was laying there in pieces," Miller would later recall. "Shrapnel had hit him in the head, and he wasn't moving. And then I noticed there was a crawling trail of blood marks, and I looked, and a girl was crawling toward my direction, reaching for me."
After a time, "she lost energy to the point where she couldn't even lift her head anymore." Miller remembered. "She was just reaching. And I had to look away, because there was nothing I could do." The very same girl had, just a few days earlier, warned Miller and his platoon that there was an improvised explosive device, or IED, on the road in front of them. She'd saved his life. He, in return, watched her die.
For years after returning home from war, Miller saw that gravely wounded little girl whenever his daughter would scream, or reach for him, or squeal in excitement. (His children have long since learned to use their indoor voices.) The day his daughter fell, it took hours for him to return from his flashback, though he felt like he'd just blinked his eyes. So he asked his wife if Lydia was OK.
"Justin," his wife whispered. "That was hours ago."
Private First Class Justin Miller served in the U.S. army for 11 years, including two deployments to Iraq, before being forced to retire in the summer of 2014. Like many veterans, Miller sustained physical problems that sent him home from active duty. He suffered a traumatic brain injury while overseas, which in his case induced memory loss and severe attention deficit disorder. He also injured his back after being slammed to the ground after an IED detonated.
Yet Miller's worst wound, as with many of his fellow veterans, is less visible: The emotional trauma of having seen the worst of what humanity can do. The specter of the Iraqi girl and all that he saw, and did, as an infantryman in Iraq continues to haunt him.
He's one of tens of thousands of U.S. armed service veterans to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder--PTSD--which leads around 8,000 vets to commit suicide each year, according to the most recent data from the Department of Veteran Affairs. That's 22 veterans taking their lives each day.
Miller was very nearly a statistic himself. One night, tormented by a vivid dream in which he saw himself beheaded, he reached for the gun in his bedside table, set on ending it all.
He didn't. But not for any noble reason, he now admits.
"I didn't think about the ripple effect," Miller remembers. "I didn't think about how [killing myself] is going to ruin my family's life. The only thought that stopped me was there wasn't a round in the chamber."
Miller called his friend Chris Mercado, a former colleague and infantry officer in the army. They talked for six hours, and Mercado was able to talk his friend down.
Now, the two are determined to prevent what almost happened to Miller from happening to others. They've co-founded an organization, Objective Zero, which is based around an app, that aims to reduce the number of veteran suicides by connecting those who are suffering--in their darkest moments--to someone who can empathize and help.
"We need something that's instant," says Miller, who knows how powerful the drive to self-harm can be. "Our app allows veterans to have an immediate and anonymous connection with another veteran."
Although resources exist for veterans who suffer from suicidal thoughts and PTSD--including through the Department of Veteran Affairs--it can be difficult to access them. When Miller called the VA the morning after he almost committed suicide, and told them in no uncertain terms how close he was to the brink, he was told he could see a therapist--in a few days.
With Objective Zero, however, a veteran in need can simply scroll through a network of hundreds of army veterans who have each been rigorously trained in suicide prevention. There's also an option to filter the results: if you're an infantryman who served in Afghanistan and are seeking someone like-minded, you could employ the search terms woman, veteran, Kabul and infantry, and immediately be connected with someone who fits that profile.
Mercado insists Objective Zero shouldn't be considered a suicide hotline, per se, but, as he puts it, more of a warm line. The idea is to support veterans who struggle with suicidal thoughts, but haven't gone so far as to make concrete plans. "It's not a crisis or prevention tool," he says. "But you don't need to be an expert to listen. You don't need to be an expert to be present, and concerned, and empathetic. These are traits we're all born with."
Ultimately, the two envision broader uses for the app, such as licensing it to help suicidal teenagers or to connect healthcare providers with patients. For now, the 15-person non-profit is still in its infancy. Apple and Android versions of the app will debut this month and at launch, users will be able to connect with its network of more than 250 specialists--for free. Objective Zero, which raised $38,000 via a successful Kickstarter campaign last fall, is working to ink a series of corporate sponsorship deals to help it expand. Miller also hopes to raise some funds for the business through a patented iPhone case he's developing with OtterBox, a Fort Collins, Colorado-based consumer electronics firm.
"I didn't trust anybody."
Despite his struggles, Miller is lucky. More than 50 of his brothers and sisters in combat have died, either in the Middle East or by their own hand after they came home. In other respects, he's been through much of the worst of what a veteran can endure.
Back in 2004, days after watching the two children die, Miller's patrol had been sent to investigate a blast site. Miller went into a nearby house to recover a camera, and to take pictures of the property. His ears were ringing from the sound of an earlier explosion and he didn't hear that his platoon had accidentally left him behind. When he turned around to leave the house, there were no trucks in sight--but dozens of angry Iraqis. He began sprinting in the direction that the trucks had been pointing, hoping against hope that it wasn't too late.
"I put my back to the wall, weapon on semi, and as I tried to push down they were coming towards me," says Miller. "And I remember jamming my weapon into their chests. I came to an alley where I turned and started sprinting." Miraculously, Miller caught up to the Humvee--and only then did the assailants stop chasing him.
"After that, I didn't trust anybody," Miller remembers. "I didn't think that I could. The people I thought I could trust my life with forgot about me."
Miller admits he continues to struggle with PTSD and still experiences suicidal thoughts. He continues to suffer from memory loss and attention deficits. There are still moments when he looks at his daughter Lydia, who's now 8, and she becomes that dying Iraqi girl. He's not certain the organization he's building will succeed.
Launching Objective Zero remains a challenge. None of Miller's 15 employees has been compensated yet; most have other full-time jobs. Even if Objective Zero takes off like he hopes, Miller estimates merely maintaining the app will cost $20,000 each month. He and Mercado characterize the need for funding as "dire," even as some major companies--including Delta Airlines--have already committed to support the business. (Miller's story just appeared in the carrier's in-flight magazine, which could drive more donors to the app and website.)
Nevertheless, the veteran soldiers on. "I'm asking the nation to help stand up," he says. "Answer the phone. Be willing to listen. Hear out our story."
He pauses. It could do what he couldn't that day near Ramadi, for a broken boy and a little girl. "That five, 10, 15-minute phone call could save somebody's life."