VILSECK, Germany — Interactive movies — which allow the audience to make decisions on behalf of a character at risk of suicide or a noncommissioned officer trying to help — are part of a suicide prevention program running Armywide this month.

The movies were screened for groups of soldiers and civilians at Vilseck on Monday as part of a suicide prevention stand down.

Over the next two weeks, every soldier in the Army will receive two hours of suicide prevention training in response to four years of rising suicide rates amongst soldiers. According to the Army, there were 128 confirmed suicides last year — and 15 more probable suicides still being investigated, up from 115 in 2007.

One of the videos focuses on a young specialist deployed to Iraq who is dumped by his girlfriend back home. The audience watches the soldier as he tries in vain to reach his girlfriend on the telephone, then finds out she is cheating with a guy who steals all the soldier’s money from his online bank account.

Every few minutes, the video pauses and gives the audience various choices, mostly to do with talking to buddies or the chain of command about the problems or keeping things bottled up.

If the audience makes the wrong choices, the soldier will end up taking his own life.

After one of the movies was screened Monday, chaplains, psychiatrists and Army leaders talked to the audience about suicide prevention.

Grafenwöhr Family Life Chaplain Maj. Darin Nielsen told soldiers to look out for warning signs and not be afraid to ask buddies: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”

If someone says they are contemplating suicide, soldiers should stay with them, remove dangerous items, such as weapons, and escort them to the chain of command, a health professional or chaplain, he said.

U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwöhr commander Col. Nils “Chris” Sorenson said soldiers must be willing to get help when they feel suicidal.

“We have got to break the stigma at every level and establish the context for the issues that individuals are having,” Sorenson said.

Sorenson said he can relate to a soldier whose girlfriend leaves him when he’s downrange.

“I’ve been there before with a girlfriend a long time ago,” he told the audience.

“You have that sorry telephone you have to wait in line for. Dealing with e-mail and you can never log on. You start seeing the issues stack up,” he said.

Nielsen said Army suicide rates are at the same level as the rate for the American public after being lower for years. The fact that the Army has been at war since 2001 is a factor, along with the availability of weapons and the impact of the conflict on Army families, Nielsen said.

“You have a guy who goes downrange. By his third or fourth time, he is more likely to have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or family problems,” he said.

Sorenson said U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwöhr is seeing more alcohol-related incidents, he said.

“We see situations where there are family issues. The soldier can’t make it to PT because his wife can’t get up and he’s got to look after the kids. Some of this can be people not understanding how to cope with stress and cope with traumatic events. We are starting to see these kids getting into trouble,” he said.

More people are putting money in on-post slot machines, Sorenson added.

“It is a stress release and then it becomes addictive. Then credit cards go dry. Soldiers come back from downrange and there is no money,” he said.

Years ago, soldiers regarded people who committed suicide as cowards, he said.

“Now we say we have an organizational responsibility to address these serious issues,” he said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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