Army paratrooper Sgt. Gabe Gonzalez felt like he had to do something. But he didn't know what.
Several buddies from his first combat deployment had already killed themselves over the past few years. And then the Fort Bragg, North Carolina-based infantryman got word recently that one of his best friends had killed himself.
"I felt so bad. I wish there had been something I could have done," he says.
Then on April 18, Gonzalez found something that he could do. It wouldn’t bring his friends back, but it might just help in a some small way to turn the tide of what some experts call an epidemic of veteran suicides.
Gonzalez posted a simple video of himself doing 22 push-ups on Instagram accompanied with by the hashtag "#22KILL."
He also challenged a friend in the post to do likewise.
The next day, Gonzalez posted another video, and then another the next — each day tagging more friends, and each day challenging them to do the same. All with the #22KILL hashtag.
It’s all part of a social media campaign launched by a group of veterans who shared a similar frustration as Gonzalez’s – — just wanting to do something, anything, about veteran suicides.
Indeed, The number 22 is quickly becoming familiar to just about anyone who wears the uniform or once did.
A study published in 2012 suggested that an average of 22 veterans kill themselves every day. While that conclusion is controversial – — some say it’s probably lower, while others argue it's actually much higher – — everyone agrees, that whatever it is, it’s too many.
And so the number 22 has become a rallying cry.
Army Sgt. Gabe Gonzalez says he just wanted to do something to help stem the tide of veteran suicides, so he's taking part in the "#22KILL" pushup campaign.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Gabe Gonzalez
"This is something that's actually happening," Gonzalez says. "I know it's real."
So does Marine Corps veteran Jimmy Mac, the program manager for the nonprofit 22Kill that introduced the hashtag.
"We’d been using the hashtag since 2013 to help raise awareness, but we’re not even sure who actually started the push-up challenge. All we know is that it was sometime late last year,." Mac says. "I wish we knew who that first person was because I’d like to buy them dinner and give them a big hug."
Like the "ALS Ice Bucket Challenge," before it, the #22KILL campaign started slowly and the slowly and then exploded. In recent weeks, when several other veterans groups started promoting it, as the challenge hit a tipping point, growing when several other veterans groups started promoting the challenge. It's grown into doing 22 push-ups for 22 days.
"To change something you have to raise awareness first," says Mac.
In recent days the group’s Facebook page topped 45,000 followers and Using an algorithm that tracks social media posts, 22KILL #22KILL the nonprofit estimates that some 4.5 million pushups have had been completed since the campaign launched late last year. That’s up from 300,000 just a few months ago.
Their The goal is to reach 22 million push-ups.
Going beyond just raising awareness, Mac says 22KILL #22KILL the 22Kill nonprofit is channeling all donated funds to sponsor veterans in programs designed to help manage depression, brain injuries, post-traumatic stress and other wounds. Since Jan. 1, the group has raised nearly $300,000.
The charity is also organizing a "Battle Buddies" program.
"This isn’t another crisis hotline. We’re just trying to help connect veterans with another veteran in their area – — someone to talk to or vent with," Mac says.
Mac says he wishes there was had been a program like that back in 2002 when he tried to take his own life. He'd been forced out of the Marine Corps because of a sudden onset of epilepsy. It took 22 stitches, a number not lost on him now, to bind the wound.
"I should have bled out," he says. "I'm not super religious, but I felt like there was some higher purpose going on," he says. "Life is worth living. We just have to get the word out."
Gonzalez says he's going to keep getting the word out.
"I'm going beyond 22 days," says he says. "I'm going to keep going, every day. Because this is real."
And it's something he can do.