By Heather Janssen

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains information regarding death and suicide. If you are struggling with depression or have thoughts of suicide, there is help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number, 1-800-273-TALK(8255).

TRAVIS AFB (CBS13) – A growing number of suicides across the armed forces has raised cause for concern over the last five years. Now, there’s hope for change, and Travis Air Force Base could be playing a critical role.

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Travis is one of two bases selected nationwide to test and provide feedback on a pilot program, using virtual reality for suicide prevention. The goal is to immerse airmen into a realistic situation using VR, and rehearse what it’s like to have tough conversations.

Scenarios put them one-on-one with fellow airmen in distress to ask difficult questions about the person’s well-being. Skills Master Sgt. John Benson says are critical.

“We should not be afraid to ask an airman how they’re doing,” Master Sgt. Benson said. He hopes to be an approachable leader for those under his chain of command.

The base is working with national company, Moth + Flame, which developed the program. Locally, Master Sgt. Sean Dougherty helped lead the charge on the training’s final day.

“You’re forced to be one-on-one with the situation,” he said. “Knowing their people care for them is huge.”

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Over the last five years, the Department of Defense says suicide statistics in the military have been steadily increasing. The most recent annual suicide report released by the DoD reported 498 total deaths by suicide. That includes active members, reserve members and the National Guard. Unofficial numbers tracked by the department until September of 2020 already listed 492.

However, per the department’s website – those unofficial counts “do not account for changes in population size or provide enough time for essential investigations to determine cause of death.”

But Master Sgt. Benson said COVID concerns have, indeed, added to the already challenging career.

“With all the hardships with coronavirus, people’s families are struggling. Not just the airmen themselves which could cause hardships to them,” Master Sgt. Benson. “You never know the struggles a person is dealing with.”

He cited constant deployments and being away from loved ones as a reason mental health can take a toll.

But the hope is that this new roleplay tool translates to reality – with confident communication being key.

The base just wrapped up phase one of the pilot program. But starting in March, it will roll out to an even larger group of airmen at the base so they may provide feedback. The hope, if things go well, it could become a tactic used across the armed forces.

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Travis Air Force Base and Scott Air Force Base in Illinois are the only two military bases testing out the virtual reality program.

Heather Janssen