By Gregg Zoroya
POTOMAC, Md. — Trying to stem a record surge in suicides, the Army is preparing an interactive video that will have soldiers play the role of a 19-year-old GI in Iraq ready to kill himself.
Make wrong choices for the fictional character —such as choosing not to confide in a friend — and he tries to kill himself.
He is shown fantasizing about suicide, says screenwriter Chris Stezin, in a barracks scene where the character points an M-4 rifle at himself. Later, if the player avoids seeking help, the character grows more despondent and is shown entering his barracks. A gunshot is then heard, and the screen fades to black.
"It's not a successfully completed suicide. Even worse, arguably, it's an unsuccessful attempt, which results in this guy being basically a vegetable," says Stezin, who works for Will Interactive, a film production company creating the video. "For soldiers to take this seriously, we can't shy away from showing what might happen. It's the reality."
The interactive film, to be unveiled in April, is one of several Army attempts to stem suicides. According to Army numbers, as many as 121 soldiers may have committed suicide in 2007. There were 89 confirmed and 32 suspected cases. That compares with 52 Army suicides in 2001 and 79 in 2003, the first year of the Iraq war. The Army suicide rate in 2006 was 17.5-per-100,000, the highest since rate estimates began in 1980. The civilian rate is 11-per-100,000.
"We're all butting our heads against the wall, trying to figure out what else we can do" to stem the increase, says Army Lt. Col. Orman "Wayne" Boyd, a chaplain who develops anti-suicide programs for the Army's Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine.
The Army had not acknowledged a link between the war and suicide until recent weeks when its leading expert — Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatrist — said long and multiple combat deployments can fracture personal relationships and broken relationships are a leading cause of suicides.
Army leaders are struggling to curtail the trend, she says. "We are obviously concerned. How can we make sure that if somebody is in despair and feeling just rotten that they reach out?"
The interactive video, Ritchie says, is "really exciting."
Other new efforts include videos of celebrities such as Terry Bradshaw, Gary Sinise and Drew Carey urging troubled soldiers to seek help. Another video features an interview with Kevin Hines, a college student who survived a leap from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. Hines talks about how he would have changed his mind if someone had intervened, Boyd says. The Army is also preparing film dramatizations of actual Army suicides with victims' identities masked, Boyd says.
Will Interactive's video features a young soldier who just received a "Dear John" e-mail from his high school sweetheart and fiancée, who tells him she is pregnant with another man's child. The video includes a second leading character, a fictional first sergeant who struggles with how to keep a close friend in the Army — a soldier who has endured four combat tours in Iraq and feels alienated from his family — from choosing suicide.
"Users will not be allowed to end the program until they have navigated to the optimum ending," a plot summary says. The film was produced out of a $980,000 Army suicide prevention contract awarded for 2007-2008 to Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo. The university has a center for the study of suicide prevention and research, says Abdoulaye Bah, a sociologist who runs that program.
According to the script, the young soldier complains to a buddy in Iraq about his life falling apart:
"I don't know man, if I was just — if I was there (with my fiancée), I could maybe do something. I think I can still fix this. I just — when I finally go to sleep, I, I really don't care if I wake up. I don't see the point."
By Gregg Zoroya
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