VERMILLION, S.D. – Major Chris Mercado, the 2017 Military Times Service Member of the Year for the U.S. Army, then a member of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, was flying to Anchorage, Alaska, from New York State the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Though the pilots on his plane warned of a possible early landing due to vague engine issues, it reached Mercado’s home at Fort Richardson, Alaska, after an eight-hour flight. It was only then he learned of the devastating events that would come to define much of the next decade of his life.
“I was enlisted at the time and didn’t feel like I was maximizing my potential,” said Mercado, originally from Sioux Falls and a 1998 graduate of Washington High School. “It convinced me to come back to South Dakota and earn my commission as an officer at USD.”
While at USD, Mercado earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with a minor in civic leadership studies. Mercado was also part of the ROTC program. He was the cadet battalion commander and graduated as a distinguished military graduate of the ROTC program – among the top cadets in the country.
“At the time, I was concerned I was going to miss the war. I was taking at least 19, sometimes 27 credits a semester to earn my commission as quickly as possible. In hindsight, I wish I would have taken a little bit more time,” Mercado said with a laugh. “I started in December of 2002 and graduated in December of 2004.”
Mercado would go on to serve five tours overseas, three during the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, and earn 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.
“I started studying counterterrorism and counter-insurgency at USD,” said Mercado. “I remember discussing insurgencies with [USD Professor] Kurt Hackemer and he gave me a stack of books to read on the topic.”
Serving in Iraq and Afghanistan left an indelible mark on Mercado’s life. “It was one of the formative events of my life. I was a first-hand witness to the changes in Iraq,” said Mercado.
After his service, Mercado earned a Master of Arts degree in security studies at Georgetown University’s Foreign Service School. He received a full-tuition scholarship from the United States Military Academy at West Point’s General Wayne A. Downing program.
“I was a little unsure what I was going to do next and I always wanted a masters degree. My wife said ‘Why not try?’” said Mercado. “She’s my secret weapon.”
It was at Georgetown that Mercado would learn the concept that forms the basis of his current commitment to service. “I took a class called Hands-On Unconventional Technology. We studied all sorts of bio-, chemical-, radiological-weapons and unconventional technologies. Things like bio-hacking,” said Mercado. “But I was really struck by this concept we learned. Successful countries aren’t the ones pushing limits with new technology. Successful countries are developing the uses of existing technology in new, innovative and unique ways. Taking and perfecting existing technology.”
It was this idea, combined with the heart-wrenching experience of listening to his friend and fellow U.S. military veteran, Justin Miller, contemplate suicide after having difficulty transitioning from the military, that convinced Mercado to work with his classmates at Georgetown to address the veteran suicide epidemic head-on. The result–Objective Zero, started in 2015.
Objective Zero is a mobile app that instantly connects veterans-in-need to a community of fellow veterans, current service members and concerned citizens. It is set to be released in August.
“Younger veterans are much more attuned to technology. Our goal is that this technology can go a long way toward removing the stigma against seeking help. In the military, there’s a belief that asking for help about these issues is a sign of weakness. It’s not,” said Mercado. “The app is anonymous and provides tools to reconnect veterans with the civilian population. It’s a judgement-free zone.”
Mercado is quick to rattle off the harrowing statistics. “The data is that 20 veterans and one active military member are taking their lives every single day,” said Mercado. “While the Vietnam War era veterans are the largest population at-risk of suicide, the highest percentage taking their lives are younger ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ era veterans. Younger female veterans are especially vulnerable. They are 2.4 times more likely than their civilian counterparts to take their own life.”
It’s Mercado’s continued focus and service to his fellow veterans that earned him the 2017 Military Times Service Member of the Year Award for the Army, though he’s quick to give credit to almost everyone else. He was honored at a ceremony in Washington D.C. in July.
“It means the world to me, it’s humbling. I’m not entirely convinced I deserve this recognition, it’s been a team effort from the beginning so this is really about the hard work of the entire Objective Zero team,” said Mercado. “I’m not doing the work the P.R. team is doing, I’m not coding the app.”
In D.C., he was honored at a reception hosted by the Military Times, met with South Dakota U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem and took tours of the national monuments, the White House and the Capitol.
“I even got to stand on the Speaker’s balcony and visit the Women’s Reading Room in the Capitol,” Mercado said. He had just returned to Hawaii where he’s stationed at the U.S. Army Schofield Barracks with the 25th Infantry Division.
“If I had to list all of the accomplishments that I achieved on my own on one side of a piece of paper, and on the other side, list the accomplishments I earned as part of a team, one side would be empty and the team side would be filled top-to-bottom,” Mercado said.
Whether intentional or not, it’s Mercado’s belief in a team-first mentality – that one’s success is intractably intertwined to the success of others – that forms another piece of the foundation for his current project at Objective Zero connecting veterans-in-need to people ready to help.
“It’s a phenomenal feeling,” Mercado reflected. “But it’s probably not warranted because one person cannot do this on their own.”