When Michael Jernigan medically retired from the Marine Corps in 2005 as a corporal, it was less than two years after an improvised explosive device blast in Iraq on Aug. 22, 2004, had taken both of his eyes and left him disfigured.
“I was one of those guys who didn’t come home whole,” he said. “I did 30 surgeries in the first 12 months.”
Jernigan struggled at first to determine what he’d do next. But he eventually attended college, graduating from the University of Southern Florida St. Petersburg in 2012 before joining an organization that is now in the middle of a social media awareness campaign that has captured the attention of not only military service members and veterans, but a variety of celebrities who have showed solidarity with them.
It’s called #22Kill, a nod toward a jarring statistic: About 22 military veterans commit suicide each day, according to a report released last year by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The majority are committed by veterans who are at least 50 years old, the VA said, but suicides in the active-duty ranks and by recent veterans have hit close to home for individuals like Jernigan, who have served alongside them.
The campaign was launched by Honor Courage Commitment Inc., a non-profit organization focused on helping veterans transition into civilian life. It began last year, but saw a resurgence in September, which is Suicide Prevention Month.
“It kind of just really began as a conversation,” said Jernigan, director of program development for the organization. “Someone brought up the statistic, and we really found it staggering. We wanted to bring awareness to that, because we figured with awareness comes prevention.”
The organization was started by Andrew Nguyen, who left the Marine Corps as a staff sergeant and served as an infantryman in Afghanistan. It promotes veterans getting a college degree, finding professional mentors and doing community service after they get out of the military. Too much rhetoric about recent veterans focuses on post-traumatic stress, rather than what they can offer, Nguyen said.
There are two main pieces to the #22Kill initiative, he said. In one, participants wear a black “Honor Ring” on their right index finger as a means of showing support for the military. That is sometimes combined with the second piece, which calls for individuals to push out 22 pushups out of respect for those who have served.
“I wanted a universal sign where I could see someone across the room and say, ‘That dude has got my back, and I’m going to go over and shake his hand,'” Nguyen said of the ring.
R. Lee Ermey (pictured above), who played the infamous gunnery sergeant in the movie “Full Metal Jacket,” is among those who have shown support for the initiative.
Others include outfielder Curtis Granderson of the New York Mets:
Rob Riggle, actor, comedian and retired Marine, who wore the ring on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon”:
— matt dallas (@themattdallas) August 13, 2014
Comedian D.L. Hughley:
— Andy Nguyen (@03Entrepreneur) February 13, 2014
Richard Rawlings of the Discovery Channel reality TV show “Fast N. Loud”:
And Medal of Honor recipient and Afghanistan War veteran Salvatore Giunta: