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New app works to end suicides among veterans

By AMANDA LINARES | The World, Coos Bay, Oregon | Published: August 27, 2019

NORTH BEND, Ore. (Tribune News Service) — A new mobile app aimed at preventing suicides among veterans was introduced on August 22 at Operation Rebuild Hope’s first “Honor 22” event at the Bay Area Church of Nazarene in North Bend, Oregon.

Folks who attended the event got a chance to learn more about “Operation Pop Smoke,” an app that was developed by former U.S. Marine Sgt. Aaron Quinonez to serve as a first-aid response tool for veterans suffering with mental health issues.

Quinonez spoke about the app’s history and how it uses micro peer-to-peer support groups to help veterans with PTSD and suicidal ideations get the help they need.

“I was following this path of discovery that God had led me on and was doing a lot of research,” said Quinonez. “In studying the progression of first aid in America, I found that systems like the Heimlich maneuver, CPR and the AED system have worked really well because they put the power to save someone’s life in the hands of the average person.”

With that in mind, Quinonez worked tirelessly over the past two years to develop and test the app, which is set to be released nationwide on Nov. 11, Veterans Day. Users of “Operation Pop Smoke” will be able to create their own customized “squad,” a group of four to five people of their choosing that they can send alerts and messages to when they are experiencing a mental health crisis.

“The department of the Army did a 40-year study that narrowed down its success to the squad element,” he said. “Members of the squad will value the squad over themselves making them fight longer and harder because they don’t want to let the squad down.”

The founder of the nonprofit organization Operation Restore Hope and its Q-missions, a program that enlists the help of veterans in restoring homes in poverty-stricken communities worldwide, Quinonez said he had for years employed the squad mentality to help veterans re-purpose their military mindsets and battle tactics to readjust successfully back into civilian life.

As he explained at the event, users who send a “white smoke” notice through the app do so to inform their fellow squad members that they are mildly struggling with an issue. The squad will have approximately 30 minutes to respond to that person. A “red smoke” notice informs the squad that the sender is in an emergency situation and in need of urgent care.

The squad will then have five minutes to respond. If no one responds, the alert will be transferred to a privately run suicide prevention hotline, said Quinonez. He added he hopes the app will act as a catalyst for veterans to connect to their local resources and get long-term care.

“My goal is to get any organization that works with veterans signed up as a way for them to provide the app for free to anybody who comes through their doors,” he said. “My second goal would be that this becomes a national standard for how we handle suicidal ideations.”

Early next year, Quinonez said the app will make certain user information available to organizations that have veterans signed up to “Operation Pop Smoke” under their subscription. The data will include basic metrics such as high usage times as a way to provide them with information to better serve their members.

“We won’t be able to see any of the messages sent,” said Quinonez. “No one will. The messages will actually auto-delete after 30 days.”

Anyone interested in learning more about the app can do so by visiting the website at operationpopsmoke.com. According to Quinonez, the app is currently available for pre-order and will cost users $12 a year to join.

On Thursday, Quinonez served as the first guest speaker of ORH’s new “Honor 22” event, a monthly outreach series aimed at raising awareness of veteran suicides around Coos County, Oregon.

“There is a general statistic that says 22 veterans die by suicide a day throughout the country,” said Krystal Hopper, the director of communications with ORH.

As a way to combat that statistic, Hopper said the nonprofit organization will continue hosting meetings on the 22nd of each month as a way to provide suicide prevention training and awareness to community members interested in learning methods to help spot people in crisis.

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