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NASCAR, Sound Off team to provide mental health support for veterans

This weekend‘s NASCAR Chicago Street Race will capture the attention of thousands of newcomers to the sport, with first-time attendees lining the fencing and watching from the temporary grandstands, eyes affixed to Next Gen cars parading through the streets of downtown Chicago.

Important to the decision to host NASCAR‘s first-ever street race in America‘s third-largest city was exposing the sport to new audiences. And as NASCAR hopes, inspire new race fans.

“He‘s really excited to see the trophy,” said Jamie Metcalf, of Naperville, Illinois, whose son, Franklin, 7, will be in attendance to experience his first NASCAR race on Sunday.

Like many others, Jamie, Franklin and two family members will make the 30-mile trip this weekend from the Chicago suburbs to Michigan Avenue, the city‘s most iconic thoroughfare and home to four of the race course‘s 12 turns.

“He asked about monster trucks,” said Metcalf. “There won‘t be monster trucks there, will there?”

No. Sadly not.

But if speed, horsepower, or the thunderous roar of 40 Next Gen engines are any consolation, Franklin will be in for a treat Sunday. And so will thousands of other Chicagoland families planning to spend their Independence Day weekends with NASCAR.

For Jamie and Franklin Metcalf, however, this first-time NASCAR memory — like all other family memories over the last five years — will take place without their beloved husband and father, David Metcalf.

David was a decorated Navy SEAL combat operator who spent nearly 20 years in the military, and during that time served tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Pacific. He met Jamie while stationed in San Diego and the couple were married in 2012.

Over the course of his military career, David developed a series of symptoms that made his days increasingly difficult, and particularly so as he entered his 40s. Headaches, memory loss, anxiety, paranoia and mood swings were among the worsening symptoms that ultimately led David to take his own life, in the garage of his home in North Carolina in 2019.

As detailed in a June 30 article in the New York Times, David left a note near a stack of books on brain injuries, his written words listing his symptoms and pleading for greater attention to the impact of weapons blast exposure on brain health.

David shot himself in the heart, preserving his brain which was studied and analyzed by a Defense Department laboratory in Maryland. He is one of at least a dozen active or veteran Navy SEALS that have died by suicide over the last decade.

While it‘s believed that David‘s tragic death was tied to brain injury, after repeated exposures to weapons blasts across five deployments, it is just one pathway leading to the deteriorating mental health of veterans and service members at large in the United States.

According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, on average 17 veterans die by suicide every day. Approximately 500 active-duty service members die by suicide each year, on average. Many were known to have battled PTSD, depression, severe anxiety or other medically diagnosed mental health issues. Tragically, in most cases, these battles are happening in silence.

More than 60% of veterans who die by suicide had not recently engaged with the Veterans Health Administration, according to the VA.

“We really emphasize a number of studies looking at post-9/11 veterans and service members,” said William Negley, founder of Sound Off, a non-profit organization focused on reducing veteran suicide by providing mental health support for veterans. “They all say half or more of those who really need help, actively choose not to seek help for fear of cultural stigmatization and professional blowback.”

It‘s a truth that cripples efforts to aid veterans and service members in dire need of effective care and support.

“There are many who were close to him that would say this, and truly, David was the last person you would think would take his own life,” said Jamie Metcalf. “He was a positive individual, happy and upbeat.”

“David didn‘t vocalize or express his struggles. And since his passing I‘ve heard from military brothers of his who privately shared that they, too, don‘t talk about their issues because of fear and how it might affect their relationships or careers.”

Prior to his death, David Metcalf taught a course on suicide awareness and prevention to Marines through a program with the U.S. Marine Corps. No one could‘ve predicted his own tragic passing.

For Negley, an ex-CIA officer, the subject of veteran mental health and suicide became even more resonant a few years after he founded Sound Off. His brother-in-law, Bill Mulder, also a Navy SEAL, died by suicide in June of 2017 — just months after retiring from the Navy.

Bill was a family man, a loving husband to William‘s sister, Sydney, and doting father of three children. Late in his career and into retirement he suffered bouts with alcoholism, insomnia, anxiety and combat fatigue.

Bill, too, suffered quietly.

“We were devastated, the many of us that loved and were close to Bill,” said Negley. “And we were frustrated. Here this man who had dedicated his life to serving this nation, had access to all these resources, yet he felt alone. He felt unable to engage with care in an open and honest fashion.”

With her husband‘s death in 2017, Sydney Mulder joined her brother in working to address this fundamental issue.

“The anonymity is essential,” said Mulder. “If Bill could have talked to someone without his teammates, leadership, family, or even me knowing, I know it would have made all the difference.”

Sound Off, with roots in Negley‘s hometown of San Antonio, Texas, is one of more than 40,000 veteran services organizations in the U.S. According to Negley, the number of organizations prioritizing mental health support is far lower.

“We‘re all aiming for the same thing, a viable solution to a very complicated problem,” said Negley. “With Sound Off, we sought to get to the heart of the issue. What are the roadblocks? What specifically is preventing veterans and service members from seeking treatment? And then how do we remove those barriers?”

Negley and his team focused on two key insights. The first centered on stigma and the understanding that military members are more likely to accept mental health support if they felt safe doing so.

Secondly, many veterans and service members are more comfortable discussing their challenges and emotions with others that served in the Armed Forces. When veterans are talking to other veterans, the shared lived experience creates a connection and level of empathy that otherwise may prevent them from seeking care.

Guided by these truths, Sound Off developed a fully encrypted mobile app that provides anonymous mental health support for veterans and service members who are struggling by pairing them with other veterans, enlisted as peer supporters.

Once registered with the app, the veteran or service member in need of support is provided with a unique and anonymous digital identity as well as access to Sound Off‘s database of clinicians and veteran peer supporters.

Once a match has been made, communication between the veteran and peer supporter takes place within the mobile app‘s protected environment. No FaceTime or need for a phone number. All messages are shared within the app‘s anonymous system.

The early results are promising. Of those who have sought help through Sound Off thus far, 38% reported they had not previously sought help, and were unwilling to do so elsewhere.

“Our survey asks why they are unwilling to seek help elsewhere, and it‘s exactly what we know — concern of professional blowback, as well as the concern of friends, family or the community finding out,” said Negley. “It‘s very clear. We are reaching the people who up until now have been suffering alone.”

As she continues to grieve her late husband, Jamie Metcalf believes David and others like him lost to suicide would‘ve benefitted greatly from a resource like the Sound Off app.

“I wish he knew about this,” said Metcalf. “What so many who are dealing with these issues want is a safe place to go for help. An outlet for them to talk and share and communicate what they‘re going through.”

“The work that William and Sound Off are doing is so incredibly important. It‘s creating a lifeline.”

Built within the app‘s framework is a network of partner organizations, contract and volunteer clinicians, and hundreds of peer supporters who registered veterans and service members have access to seven days a week. The goal is to provide access to varying levels of care depending on military member needs.

The challenges for Sound Off, like so many other non-profits, are visibility, growth and scaling the app‘s user base — not just those seeking help, but also clinicians and peer supporters. The organization announced NASCAR as its first major corporate partner last fall — a collaboration designed to bring awareness to Sound Off and recruit peer supporters from the sport‘s massive fan base.

The partnership represents of a key component of NASCAR IMPACT, the sport‘s new social responsibility platform that focuses on veteran services among other areas of community engagement and support.

“As our fans know, NASCAR is a patriotic sport and we have a long history of celebrating and showing appreciation for the military,” said Pete Stuart, NASCAR‘s managing director, impact strategy and development. “With NASCAR IMPACT, we‘re leaning into areas of critical need for veterans and service members and, very importantly, that includes mental health.”

“We believe in the vision of Sound Off and the progress that‘s been made to date, so now it‘s about activating veterans who are NASCAR fans to rally around this organization and support.”

This spring, in conjunction with NASCAR Salutes Together with Coca-Cola, NASCAR IMPACT launched a multi-channel campaign to amplify the mission of Sound Off and encourage veterans among the fan base to sign up as peer supporters. The campaign includes a PSA, social media content, digital advertising and video signage at NASCAR racetracks.

After the launch, Sound Off began seeing spikes in registered peer supporters — more than six times as many compared to the same period in 2023. In addition, there has been growth in terms of veterans and service members seeking aid.

“NASCAR has the audience and reach that we need to grow our impact,” said Negley. “We‘re so grateful for the support, and it‘s partnerships like these that will ultimately turn our long-term vision for Sound Off into a reality.”

This weekend, Negley and Metcalf will attend NASCAR Chicago Street Race Weekend with their families to share the stories of their lost loved ones and bring awareness to Sound Off and the issue of veteran suicide. Along the track footprint and fan areas, there will be Sound Off signage with QR codes directing veterans to download the app on Apple and Android devices.

To learn more about Sound Off and its efforts to reduce veteran suicide in America, visit Veterans can become peer supporters by downloading the Sound Off app and registering with code ‘NASCAR.‘