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DoD tests VR suicide prevention training at Scott and Travis AFBs

Leaders from across the 60th Air Mobility Wing at Travis took part in a suicide prevention, virtual reality training test phase Feb. 17 – 19. The 30-minute training is aimed to help Airmen’s comfort in engaging with others to prevent suicide. The training involves participants putting on a virtual reality headset and entering a scenario in which they interact with a person who is in obvious emotional distress. The goal is for the participant to convince the distressed person to get help. If participants don’t ask the distressed person the right questions to prompt them to get help, a training coach chimes in to assist the participant. U.S. Air Force video by Nicholas Pilch)

A man in uniform sits at a table weating a virtual reality headset while holding a virtual reality controller.

Lt. Col. Glenn Cameron, 60th Civil Engineer Squadron commander, participates in a test-virtual reality program, at Travis Air Force Base, California, Feb. 18, 2021. The resiliency program is being tested at Scott and Travis AFBs and is the only training across the Department of Defense of its kind. (U.S. Air Force photo by Nicholas Pilch)

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Leaders from across the 60th Air Mobility Wing at Travis took part in a suicide prevention, virtual reality training test phase Feb. 17 – 19.

The 30-minute training is aimed to help Airmen’s comfort in engaging with others to prevent suicide.

The training involves participants putting on a virtual reality headset and entering a scenario in which they interact with a person who is in obvious emotional distress. The goal is for the participant to convince the distressed person to get help. If participants don’t ask the distressed person the right questions to prompt them to get help, a training coach chimes in to assist the participant.

Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, Air Mobility Command commander, awarded a contract to Moth + Flame, which specializes in creating virtual environments and applications. She hired the company to develop suicide prevention training that would allow Airmen and their spouses to interact  with fellow distressed, Airmen in a virtual environment.

“We are excited and highly motivated to be the catalyst for this innovative suicide prevention program,” said Brig. Gen. Norm West, Air Mobility Command surgeon general stated,   The VR scenario is very realistic and this is the type of training we need to save lives in the real world. One life lost to suicide is too many”.  

AMC is the first VR project in the Department of Defense to utilize immersive, conversational training for suicide prevention. 

“We believe this training will not only save lives but prepare our Airmen for tough conversations that will build a more resilient force,” said Mr. Victor Jones, AMC Suicide Prevention program manager. 

Master Sgt. Shawn Dougherty, a VR training facilitator here, said one of the most common occurrences in the current training, which involves role playing with fellow trainees, is that when someone needs to say something tough, they don’t say it as loud as the rest of what they say.

“The unique part of this VR training is that it’s voice-activated, so you’re required to say things out loud that maybe you’ve never had to say before,” said Dougherty. “Actually saying phrases to Airmen in distress like ‘do you have a gun in the house?’ … or ‘Are you thinking about harming yourself?’”

Scott and Travis AFBs were selected as pilot bases for this first phase of the training. During this phase, base leadership, squadron commanders, superintendents and first sergeants are participating in close-to-real-world, virtual scenarios.

“This module is an Airman-to-Airman scenario,” Dougherty said. “The training gives you an opportunity to be face-to-face with another Airman, in an Airman’s perspective with someone that’s in distress. You are trying to talk them down, resolve the situation, figure out what is going on with him and find out the best scenario to get him to safety.”

Dougherty said leadership is their primary audience for this first phase because before Airmen can accept the new training, leaders need to first.

“I think this is a great opportunity to see how technology is being used to leverage a similar experience to that of a pilot,” said Lt. Col. Glenn Cameron, 60th Civil Engineering Squadron commander and participant in the VR training. “This allows you to have an experience of a scenario before you’re actually in it.”

Cameron leads one of the largest squadrons on base, and having this training available to his Airmen is something he thinks would benefit them all, from the youngest to the oldest Airman because these conversations are not easy to have.

“We’re having wing leadership come in because their feedback is vital to making sure that we get this program right,” Dougherty said. “We have to have the best solution to roll it out and reach as many Airmen as possible.”

Dougherty said being immersed in to a VR experience with dialogue-based training makes the conversation feel real.

“It’s a pretty intense experience, to be honest,” Cameron said. “You actually see a bona fide actor who doesn’t feel like anything except a real human being talking to you, and he gives you real answers, and there’s an interaction that gives you an opportunity to see when you cheese it up, he calls you out.”

Cameron also said it was an honest and emotional experience. 

 “AMC is preoccupied with suicide, predicting duress, modeling and intervening at our earliest opportunity,” said West. “The VR training increases our sensitivity to the subtleties and sub-threshold warnings necessary to make a positive difference. This is a family affair.”

Editor’s commentary: I participated in the training, and here is what I experienced.

After you put on the VR goggles, you sign in. Then you are greeted by an Air Force official to discuss the importance of resiliency and tough conversations about suicide. After that, you are welcomed in to Tony Dungy’s office, who volunteered to be a part of this interactive experience. Dungy’s son took his life in 2005, and his father was a Tuskegee Airman.

While interacting with Dungy, he probes about your service and reminds you of the Air Force’s A-C-E protocol to ask, care and escort someone in distress.

Then, you are catapulted into a real-life scenario. You get a call from a woman asking you to check-in on Mike. Then images from social media showing warning signs that Mike is in distress scatter across the screen. Finally, you are face to face with Mike who wants to know why you are in his house.

From there, it plays out like any conversation. However, depending on what you say, Mike either shuts down or agrees to get help. Regardless of how the conversation goes, you feel like you’re actually in the room, even if you don’t at first.

I found myself feeling empathy for Mike. I answered incorrectly a couple times to see what his reaction would be, and the actor really pulled me into his story. His wife has left him and taken the kids. She won’t talk to him, and during a tussle, she fell and hit her neck on something that left a mark. Mike is at his wits’ end, and he doesn’t come out and say he is going to hurt himself, but it’s implied.

Eventually, you are prompted by Mike’s demeanor that he needs help, and you ask him to come with you to see the first sergeant.

The training closes with Dungy talking about his connection to the Air Force, the subject matter and the importance of resiliency and these conversations.

“We need to have these tough conversations because they will help us get to that spiritual strength.  This is something that happens as a community and the more we can encourage the tough conversations, the stronger we’ll get, together.”- Coach Tony Dungy

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