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Old 03-14-2009, 05:30 AM
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Army Suicide training

Army Goes Interactive Against Suicide
March 05, 2009
FORT EUSTIS -- In the midst of fighting two wars abroad, the Army faces a sobering battle in its ranks: preventing its soldiers from killing themselves.

Last year, 128 soldiers committed suicide - the most since the Army began keeping statistics in 1980. Note: this is only the ones that are still in the Army. It doesn't include the other branches of the military, or those who have been discharged and committed suicide as a civilian.

This year could be just as deadly. Army officials reported 24 suspected suicides in January, according to an Army spokeswoman. If each death is found to be self-inflicted, January would mark the first month since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began in which more soldiers killed themselves than were killed in combat.

Local Army installations haven't experienced an increase - since 2003, two soldiers stationed at either Fort Eustis in Newport News or Fort Story in Virginia Beach have taken their own lives. None have killed themselves while deployed, and 96 soldiers made suicide gestures or attempts over the past six years.

But like Army installations around the world, they're wrapping up a month of mandatory suicide prevention training.

By the end of next week, every soldier and government employee at the two bases will have completed an interactive scenario called "Beyond the Front," which is a cross between a feature film and a computer game in which participants choose how a soldier responds to certain situations.

The first vignette features a young enlisted soldier struggling to deal with his fiancee's infidelity and the death of a comrade while serving overseas.

The second scenario involves a sergeant concerned about a buddy's mental health after four combat deployments.

Every few minutes, the film characters face choices: talk to a buddy, or just blow off the stress? Seek out a chaplain for guidance, or mope in the barracks? Tell a friend his drinking is troublesome, or ignore it?

Like a choose-your-own-adventure book, the viewer's choices dictate how the story unfolds.

For Staff Sgt. Bradley Soto, a chaplain's assistant with the 8th Transportation Brigade at Fort Eustis, the interactive formula works.

"You can tell a soldier what you want all day long, but until he's required to actually give his own personal thought, think about something, (he doesn't) learn from it. I think that's exactly what this training does. It requires him to think, 'Hey, what's going on?' and then he's got to make the judgment call."

Soto's boss, brigade chaplain Capt. Craig M. Johnson, said the program is one of the best training tools he's seen in 21 years in uniform.

Training films are stereotypically bad, he said: wooden acting, bad dialogue, a chance for hundreds of soldiers sitting in an auditorium to pretend they're paying attention while day dreaming or sleeping.

But "Beyond the Front" is used in small groups - typically 10 to 12 soldiers from a unit - facilitated by someone with training, like Johnson or Soto.

Johnson has done three tours in Iraq. He said the material is realistic and hard-hitting. In one scenario, after the sergeant makes the "wrong" decision, his phone rings in the middle of the night with the news that his buddy killed himself.

Sharon Sloane, chief executive officer of the company that produced the training, said it's effective because it allows soldiers to play out that scenario without actually living with the consequences.

Kirsten Berak, a psychologist who heads community mental health services at Fort Eustis' McDonald Army Health Center, said the training is good for a generation of soldiers raised on video games.

"It's not sitting in a large group as an audience, being spoon- fed the information. It's really interactive."

Berak said the Army is making strides with helping soldiers who do come forward for mental health treatment. A little more than a year ago, the center had three mental health professionals: a psychologist, a psychiatrist and a social worker. Now there are a dozen.

No matter how good the support system on base, though, multiple combat deployments take a toll.

That's not something chaplains or psychologists can change. Defense officials and congressional leaders are discussing ways to increase soldiers' time at home between deployments.
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