• Mon. Oct 3rd, 2022

Army uses training and new virtual reality tool to prevent suicides

ByJanice K. Merrill

Jun 22, 2022

On a sunny spring morning, Air Force cadets gathered in a dimly lit auditorium at the University of Texas at El Paso to hear a 20-year-old Army officer with 11 combat tours talk about the suicides in the army.

Retired Lt. Col. JC Glick began his discussion, via Zoom, with a brief description of his military experience, primarily in special operations.

What he said next stunned many cadets.

“About 18 months into my 11th fight tour – it was my first of four suicide attempts,” he said.

Unlike most, Glick is comfortable talking about suicide — a top military killer. He is now on a mission to get others to talk about suicide too. It is in partnership with Butterfly + Flamea virtual reality company and leader in immersive learning with the goal of reducing military suicides.

“It’s about ‘do you think about hurting yourself? that everyone says, ‘it’s so hard to say.’ It’s not. Just practice saying it. And we have the thing that will help you practice saying it,” Glick said.

In the 20 years since 9/11, more service members and veterans have died by suicide than in combat. A 2021 study by Brown University’s Watson Institute of International Affairs, found that more than 30,000 active-duty personnel and veterans of post-9/11 wars committed suicide, while 7,057 were killed in action or during military exercises.

The U.S. Department of Defense required an annual suicide tracking report in 2018 to “increase transparency and accountability of DOD’s suicide prevention efforts,” according to a summary in the most recent report.

The 2021 report is being finalized, but the combined quarterly reports provide a snapshot of last year. In 2021, there were 328 suicides among active duty Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force personnel. The reserves lost 190 members to suicide and 116 National Guard soldiers killed themselves last year.

Learn to talk about suicide

Moth + Flame virtual reality modules train other service members, team leaders and commanders to have conversations with someone contemplating suicide with the goal of ensuring the person receives help what she needs. There is also a module for spouses. The conversation is voice-activated by the user having to say things out loud and engage with someone in distress.

An Air Force cadet wears a headset that allows him to access virtual reality suicide prevention training

Angela Kocherga



An Air Force ROTC cadet wears goggles while engaging in voice-activated conversation with a person in crisis during a virtual reality training session at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Virtual reality training could be a tool in the overall suicide prevention effort. The Air Force is currently testing the modules. The cadets had the opportunity to try out the training in El Paso after a question-and-answer session at the end of Glick’s presentation.

Lt. Col. Dana Bochte, commander of Air Force ROTC for New Mexico State University and UTEP, sees the value in the virtual reality experience.

“You put on the glasses. There’s a little intro and you’re put right into the storyline of going up against an airman or a guard, you know, someone in Space Force, who has suicidal thoughts,” Bochte said.

As a squadron commander, she saw the virtual scenario play out in real life.

“Many times, both as a friend of peers who were really struggling” and with her teammates who “were crewed together for an entire month in Afghanistan,” she said.

Bochte also saw other people come forward asking for help, “either identified themselves as having come to see me and said they had problems, or were brought in by colleagues and friends”.

Prevention at Fort Bliss

Suicide affects all branches of the military. But the largest, the military, recorded the highest number of suicides last year with 176 active duty soldiers, 45 reserve and 101 National Guard soldiers according to the latest quarterly report. report for 2021. There are 480,000 active duty personnel in the military.

Fort Bliss does not disclose the number of suicides among its soldiers “as a matter of policy,” according to a statement in response to a data request.

“As for our Fort Bliss service members who succumb to suicide, each incident is a tragic loss that affects the service member’s family and teammates as well as the greater Fort Bliss family,” the statement said.

At Fort Bliss, suicide prevention is a command-level priority.

Maj. Gen. Sean C. Bernabe, Senior Mission Commander, 1st Armored Division, launched Operation Ironclad in February 2021 to “combat harmful behavior” with a focus on three “corrosives” including sexual assault, suicide and extremist behavior and activities.

There are a range of resources for the 18,193 service members at Fort Bliss, including military family life counsellors, chaplains placed in each battalion at squadron level and above, clinicians and outpatient behavioral health programs ; and more recently an “evidence-based” group therapy program.

“We are all on deck regarding this very difficult issue,” said Lt. Col. Gordon Lyons, chief of behavioral health care at Fort Bliss.

“That’s the goal of behavioral health services in the military — to make you better, stronger, so we have a stronger military and we’re stronger as a country and a nation for that,” said Lyons.

Lyons said his own struggles as a youngster inspired him to enter the behavioral health field. He describes his role as a “travel guide” rather than a “tourist” for soldiers seeking mental health help.

Some soldiers, he said, may be particularly at risk due to a combination of factors. Soldiers who had difficult childhoods, who are currently experiencing issues with their intimate partners, and who are young and often more impulsive need special attention if they are in crisis, Lyons said.

However, the new generation of young soldiers are also often more willing to talk about mental health, he said.

“I think they are paving the way for the societal change of being open and able to talk about mental, psychological and emotional issues in order to solve our problems and be stronger as human beings,” he said. he declares.

It is also essential to dispel myths about those at risk of suicide, to include those with successful military careers.

“These people who are ‘hard chargers’ as we call them in the military, who are really on their game, get things done, sometimes often have high expectations of themselves. It may actually be a risk factor,” Lyons said.

The Fort Bliss Suicide Prevention Program provides training and education to raise awareness at all levels. Mandatory training focuses on the ACE suicide intervention model, which stands for “ask, treat, escort.”

During a half-hour session at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in March, the trainer focused on ACE and led a discussion with soldiers about barriers to seeking help in mental health, including perceived stigma.

“We are moving in the right direction,” Sgt 1st Class Antoine Riddick, 38, said after completing the training.

“The more we talk about it and educate and learn about it, the more I feel we will move away from the stigma,” he said. “And it shows that we are people and that we are suffering like anyone else, and when we need help, we can ask for help.”

Lifesaving conversations

These days, more and more military leaders are openly discussing their own mental health issues. Glick is candid about being treated for anxiety, PTSD and depression after multiple deployments.

“My first wife caught me with a gun in her mouth and she never spoke to me about it again,” he said. “And she’s a very good human being, a spectacular woman, certainly a good military wife and a good mother.”

Years after their divorce, he asked her why she hadn’t asked. He said his ex-wife told him she didn’t want to upset him any further.

“When you have someone who is a really good person who feels like they can’t talk about it because they’re not equipped, that speaks to me. It means she is not alone,” he said.

Teaching people to have these vital conversations became her new mission.

Glick is recovering. He found the help he needed and remarried. He wants those in crisis to know that things will get better.

“My life is wonderful every moment,” he said. “And I think there is hope.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799- 4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.