MCGUIRE AIR FORCE BASE, NJ – The three airmen sat still, setting their headsets and muttering to their colleague, who was in significant trouble. “Everyone walks through rough spots sometimes,” everyone said, moments apart, to the same desperate and slightly intoxicated man whose wife had recently left him and who seemed to be deep in thoughts of suicide.

The flier on the other end of the headsets was virtual, but the conversation involved a 30-minute, occasionally harrowing journey between three actual fliers and a virtual actor, each trying to persuade them to get help.

The three of them tried a new virtual reality program this month that the Air Force is using to address two issues that continue to weigh on military leaders: suicide and ranks sexual assault. Years of prevention training – often in the form of sleepy PowerPoint presentations – have done little to contain the frequency of both problems.

It remains to be seen whether the virtual reality model can ultimately perform better. But military officials are encouraged by the early self-reported responses to the training.

So far, more than 1,000 Air Force employees have taken part in the training. 97 percent of those who tried it would recommend it, and trainees said they were more likely to intervene with a person in a crisis. And among 18-25 year olds – a generation that is more used to the interactive virtual experiences that make up the majority of new employees – the impact has increased sevenfold. Officials plan to train at least 10,000 Airmen with the program this year.

The training is intended to deal with problems that have tended to deteriorate in the military in recent years. Between 2014 and 2019, the suicide rate for all active troops rose from 20.4 to 25.9 suicides per 100,000, according to the Pentagon; In the last three months of 2020, suicides among National Guard troops almost tripled from 14 to 39 in the same period last year.

In 2019, the Department of Defense found there were 7,825 reports of sexual assault involving service members as victims, up 3 percent from 2018.

The Army recently reprimanded 12 soldiers in an Illinois-based Army Reserve unit and took disciplinary action against two senior leaders for mistreating complaints of sexual assault. Investigators found that the leaders lacked “basic knowledge and understanding of the core principles” of the Army’s Sexual Assault Prevention Program.

One of the few effective tactics for both problems, experts say, is bypassing intervention. For example, you may witness harassment in a bar or increasingly alarming messages on social media that pose a threat of suicide.

In the military, it can be culturally difficult to intervene, especially against someone of higher rank, especially younger recruits. “Barriers sometimes get in the way of people who step in,” said Carmen Schott, program manager for sexual assault prevention and response for the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command. “If someone is of a higher rank, you may be more shy to say something. The Air Force has gone to great lengths to make it clear that if you intervene, nothing negative will happen. “

The aim of the virtual reality program is to play scenarios with airplanes in simulated environments. The technology enables airmen to select from the clues at the bottom of the screen to have an interactive “conversation” with a photorealistic virtual actor whose facial expressions and reactions are designed to make training more effective.

In this behavioral test, airmen learn what can be useful, such as asking their buddy if he has a gun in his house and why some other answers – like “open up” – are not helpful. Participants receive feedback on their empathy score and tips on how to improve in future encounters.

“The virtual reality training puts the user in a scenario, not in a classroom where you are on your cell phone,” said Ms. Schott. “You are an active participant. You have to be ready. I think it will help the aviators retain knowledge and remember it. We don’t want people to feel judged. You may not make perfect decisions, but you will learn skills. “

Kevin Cornish, the executive director of Moth + Flame, a virtual reality learning company in Brooklyn, looked a bit like an Air Force Base intruder here, a casually dressed artist under uniforms. Mr. Cornish, who was working on Taylor Swift music videos when intrigued by the immersive experience of having a 360 degree camera in one of them, said that “someone who makes eye contact and speaks to you has something so invigorating. ”

He said he is increasingly seeing companies turning to virtual reality to simulate difficult work meetings and game-out scenarios, especially when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

While the aviators took turns using their headsets to interact with their suicidal virtual colleague, some spoke softly and awkwardly, while others sounded like stage actors as they tried to persuade their fellow aviator to hand over his gun and take them to a supervisor. Sometimes they nodded while listening, or lowered their voices, or wiped away a tear.

“I loved that it was convenient,” said Annette Hartman, 23, a senior aviator. “It was better than doing a briefing and waiting to sign out on a roster. Some of the answers I wouldn’t have thought of include saying, “Have you thought about suicide? Do you have a gun ‘”

This type of experience is expected to expand: another viewer program, launched in July, will take users into a bar and watch a scene of sexual harassment unfold.

“In a immersive experience, you get much closer to the feelings of a real story than you would with a computer screen,” said Nonny de la Peña, executive director of Emblematic Group and an early creator of virtual reality experiences. “We are beginning to realize that our world is not flat and that learning, experiencing and connecting will not be flat for much longer.”