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New Data, But No New Names for Vets' Suicide Prevention Organizations

Pfc. Paige Pendleton/Army
Pfc. Paige Pendleton/Army

What do actor Cuba Gooding Jr., comedian Rob Riggle and mixed martial arts hall-of-famer Randy Couture have in common?

They've all been known to publicly sport black rings on their index fingers inscribed with "22Kill" -- a slogan designed to raise awareness about the number of veterans who take their own lives every day. That 22-per-day number, extrapolated from a 2009 Department of Veterans' Affairs report, has long been the subject of criticism by those who say the number is inaccurate and the data old.

On Thursday, the VA released new, more comprehensive data that indicates 20 veterans die by suicide a day, a figure that alters the 22-per-day statistic but still places the rate 21 percent higher than that for American civilians.

But for 22Kill, the veterans' suicide prevention organization that makes the popular trigger-finger rings, this new data won't prompt a change in the name, or the mission, officials said.

"Listen, 22Kill is a movement," the group's executive director, Jacob Schick, told Military.com. "Not only that, but we've become a brand. We're not changing the name. It never crossed my mind."

Schick, a medically retired Marine corporal who was wounded in combat in Iraq in 2004, said he never had a lot of faith in the data generated by the federal government. The organization began in 2013 and received a shot in the arm in the last year thanks to a viral social media campaign in which participants pledge to do 22 push-ups a day for 22 days to raise awareness.

From June 1, 2015, to June 1, 2016, Schick said, the organization has sold or distributed about 20,000 of their signature rings in rubber, tungsten and titanium.

While Schick still doubts the accuracy of the new VA data, he said it confirms the need for his organization's work.

"It looks like we're moving in the right direction, albeit very slowly," Schick said. "Obviously there's a lot of hard work to do and this just reassures us of that fact."

Mission 22, another veteran-founded organization that is raising funds to create a mobile memorial to veterans who die by suicide, will also keep its name, executive director Sarah Dawdy told Military.com.

If anything, Dawdy said, the new VA data confirms the scope of the problem and the need for a solution.

"With the 2009 study being so inaccurate, people have always said, 'Well, what if it's drastically lower?'" she said. "But this study goes to show that we are facing those drastic numbers. We aim to end that."

Dawdy said the organization planned to keep its name and its mission until the veterans' suicide rate diminished to zero per day.

"It's been glazed over for too long," she said. "I think people aren't talking about it. Nobody wants to talk about suicide. That's the whole point of Mission 22, is bringing it to the surface."

There are several prominent voices in the military community who disagree with using the figure in any context to raise awareness about suicide.

Kim Ruocco, chief external relations officer for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which serves surviving family members and friends of those who die on active duty, is outspoken on the point.

Ruocco joined TAPS after her husband, a Marine AH-1 Cobra pilot, died by suicide in 2005. She told Military.com she worries that the oft-used "22" figure fosters a sense of hopelessness among veterans and glosses over the fact that many veteran suicides are correlated with a number of pre-existing factors, including mental illness.

Twice in the last year, she said, TAPS has encountered stories of veterans who died by suicide who left notes saying that they would be one of the 22 that day, so "Why even try?"

"We would prefer to talk about the fact that there are so many evidence-based treatments out there that can care for our veterans who are suffering," Ruocco said. "We want to encourage them to go and get treatment before they feel suicidal and hopeless."

Schick defended the in-your-face name of his organization, saying it was meant to engage people who might otherwise ignore the real problem of veterans' suicide.

"Well, you know, to me the name is supposed to get your attention, just like AIDS or Cancer." Schick said. "Those aren't names like lollipops or roses. This is a very morbid epidemic that we're dealing with."

--Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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