JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – With a rise in suicides across the service, the Air Force Installation Contracting Center is helping leaders fast-track a pilot program at Air Mobility Command to help save lives.
The virtual reality suicide training being tested at Scott AFB, Illinois, and Travis AFB, California, offers a new, more effective way to train Airmen on suicide prevention, said Kaitlyn Woodruff, the AFICC contracting officer assigned to the training.
“Moth+Flame and Air Mobility Command pitched its innovative solution to the Air Force under an open topic and was awarded a contract through the Small Business Innovation Research Program to invest in the idea,” Woodruff said.
The SBIR program enables small businesses to explore their technological potential and provides an incentive to profit from commercialization.
Under the contract, the company provided the Air Force with four training scenarios and 50 headsets for the tests at Scott and Travis, and provides real-time positive and negative feedback from users about the VR content to AMC program managers.
For the suicide prevention training, Woodruff and contract specialist Jena Bowman, both with AFICC’s 763rd Enterprise Sourcing Squadron, expedited the SBIR process – from contract build to award – in less than 60 days.
“Our unit built and awarded the contract that allowed this amazing technology to be developed and distributed for Air Force use as soon as possible,” Woodruff said. “We received the requirement in August of 2020 and had it awarded by the end of September. Normally acquisitions of this magnitude take at least a year.”
“There is no greater prevention need right now than getting at suicide prevention in the Air Force,” said Victor Jones, AMC suicide prevention program manager and VR suicide prevention contract owner.
Currently, AMC is testing only one training scenario, Airman-to-Airman, but three more will be included at the two installations soon. The training scenarios come with different risk factors, giving Airmen, leaders and spouses the knowledge and tools they need to help someone, Woodruff said.
“The goal of this training experience is to provide Airmen, at all levels, the tools that will enable them to recognize a distressed Airman, have a difficult conversation and guide that Airman to safety,” Jones said. “From my past experiences facilitating suicide prevention training, I have always wondered if the trainees would be able to apply the soft skills that were being taught in the classroom into a real-world situation.”
The reality, he said, is traditional classroom trainings often fall short in preparing Airmen to engage in what is likely the most difficult conversation they could ever have with a fellow distressed Wingman.
“The need for this work was so obvious,” Jones said. “We wanted to provide a training experience unlike anything ever encountered … a realistic conversational interaction in a simulated environment that would have unparalleled realism in having these difficult, uncomfortable but necessary conversations.”
A unique part of the training is having to say things out loud that you may have never said before, said Master Sgt. Shawn Dougherty, Travis AFB’s VR training facilitator and one of the pilot participants. Those things include questions such as “Do you have a gun in the house?” and “Are you thinking about harming yourself?”
“The (Airman-to-Airman module) gives you an opportunity to be face-to-face with another Airman, in an Airman’s perspective with someone in distress,” Dougherty said. “You’re trying to talk him down, resolve the situation, figure out what is going on with him and find out the best scenario to get him to safety.”
Being immersed in the VR experience with dialogue-based training makes the conversation feel real, he added.
“Actually going through the process of talking to someone with thoughts of suicide is much different than sitting through a PowerPoint presentation,” Woodruff said. “It impacts you emotionally and takes the fear out of talking to someone thinking about suicide.”
Helping the Air Force find a way to tackle rising suicide numbers in its ranks and mental health issues is personally important to both Bowman and Woodruff.
“As someone who has personally battled mental health issues and who knows of countless others who have as well, the importance of this contract for VR suicide prevention training cannot be overstated,” Bowman said.
“I believe it is important that the Air Force is acknowledging the suicide prevention training historically provided is not as effective as it once was, which is further proven by the unfortunate increase in suicide rates the last couple of years,” Bowman said. “This contract shows the Air Force is committed to its Airmen and combatting the suicide epidemic.”
“This issue is important to me personally,” Woodruff added, “so I truly believe this new training will have a very positive, widespread impact on the Air Force as a whole.”
During the Scott AFB VR training leadership rollout, Woodruff and Bowman went through the VR training experience.
“It was a great moment having the contract team, which were so instrumental in awarding this project’s contract, actually partaking in the VR experience,” Jones said.
“Kaitlyn and Jena were so helpful during this process and I have learned so much about contracting in general from them,” he said. “Overall, my experience has provided me with a greater appreciation to all the strong work our contracting teams provide on a daily basis.”
While many people may not realize contracting professionals’ level of importance and the intricate nature of their role as force enablers, they are vital in making sure missions are executed, Bowman said.
The job of contracting experts is to find a way to ’yes,’ within laws and regulations to support mission execution for their mission partners, while trying to secure the most fair and reasonable price for the government, she added.
“It is an incredibly humbling feeling to know that I had such an important role in potentially helping avoid and reduce the number of Airmen suicides,” Bowman said. “This is by far one of the most important professional and personal efforts I have ever had the pleasure of working on and I sincerely believe this contract will better prepare Airmen in handling the important issue of suicide prevention … I am eager to see how this contract evolves over time and for the positive impacts to come to fruition.”
If determined beneficial for Airmen and Guardians, the VR training has the potential to be used Air Force and Space Force wide, Woodruff said.
For more on the pilot test at Travis AFB, go to https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2510658/dod-tests-vr-suicide-prevention-training-at-scott-travis-afbs/. For more information about the SBIR process, visit https://www.afsbirsttr.af.mil/.