By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tenn (Reuters) - The Tennessee National Guard has launched a pilot program that will allow potentially suicidal troops to use a new smart phone application to immediately connect them to help.
The "Guard Your Buddy" app was spearheaded by Clark Flatt, president and CEO of the Jason Foundation, which he launched in October 1997 after his son, Jason, 16, took his life July 16 of that year.
Major General Terry "Max" Haston, who approached Flatt about the app, said the idea is pretty simple.
"We hope soldiers will download this smart phone application and pass it on to their fellow troops to ensure they have someone to talk to in times of trouble," Haston said.
"It's difficult to predict if or when a member of our guard family will face suicidal thoughts, but we want them to be able to get help if they need it."
Flatt said suicides in the National Guard "have gone up 450 percent since 2004," a number that includes at least six members of the state National Guard.
And the problem isn't just in Tennessee, which is why Haston and Flatt hope to spread the app nationwide sooner rather than later.
Numbers provided by Master Sergeant Marshall Bradshaw of the Arlington, Virginia-based National Guard Bureau's suicide prevention program show 362 National Guard members nationwide have been confirmed as suicide victims since 2007. Another 23 cases are still under investigation, he said.
Flatt said that after being approached by the general he wasn't sure his foundation, built around the idea of preventing tragedies like that which happened to his own high school son, was the right venue.
Haston convinced him the Jason Foundation's goal of addressing youth suicide very much applies to the National Guard.
"A lot of the people we're talking about as having these issues are young guardsmen, 18-24 years old," Flatt said, noting that encompasses the college age group his foundation serves. "We found a lot of problems were relationships and finance," that left unaddressed could lead to thoughts of suicide.
Tennessee National Guard Command Sergeant Major Terry Scott works in family support at the Nashville headquarters. Among his concerns are substance-abuse issues, which he says often are contributing factors to suicide.
The Guard Your Buddy app draws raves.
"I think it's going to assist us in a great way. We have a lot of young soldiers in the 17-25 range and that's where our highest rate of suicide is," Scott said, praising the app as a way to reach out to them. "Being an electronic device, it is what they are in tune with."
That high-tech tool provides soldiers the immediacy that could save a life, said Flatt.
"What we came up with is a Guard Your Buddy app for your smart phone and a mobile web site that contains all the links, the places somebody can go as to how to help a friend, talk to a friend," he said.
The smart phone has a "Talk Now" button that instantly connects soldiers to "a master's-level clinician or above who can connect you to life services."
"You don't talk to an operator," said Flatt. "The confidentiality is very high."
He said that program was the work of a team, including his foundation, the guard and E4, a Dallas-based national employee assistance company that provides the clinicians pro bono for the pilot program.
The app is based around a simple fact of life in the guard. "They have a battle buddy code of honor: Take care of your buddy," said Flatt. "If you see your buddy and there are some warning signs, then use this app and get help."
Flatt said the general has made a directive that beginning January 1, all Tennessee National Guardsmen must have a card with the web site and app information on it "as part of their uniform," meaning they must have it in their possession whenever they are on duty.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam participated in this week's unveiling of the app.
"Soldiers serving in our war against terror have faced long deployments away from their families while enduring tragic combat events," said Haslam. "It is important to find ways to help today's troops and the Guard Your Buddy app will give them access to round-the-clock resources."
(Editing by Jerry Norton)