By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tenn (Reuters) - U.S. soldiers facing emotional problems and contemplating suicide may soon be able to use a smart phone application to connect them to help.
The Tennessee National Guard, the state's reserve military force, launched a pilot program of the "Guard Your Buddy" app that was spearheaded by Clark Flatt, president and CEO of the Jason Foundation.
Major General Terry "Max" Haston, the commander of the Tennessee National Guard, approached Flatt, who launched the app in October 1997 after his teenage son Jason committed suicide, about using the app for his soldiers.
Flatt said suicides in the National Guard have risen 450 percent since 2004. He and Haston hope to spread the app nationwide in National Guard units.
"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."
The National Guard Bureau's suicide prevention program shows that 362 National Guard members nationwide committed suicide since 2007, and another 23 cases are under investigation.
Haston convinced Flatt that the Jason Foundation's goal of addressing youth suicide also 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. "We found a lot of problems were (about) relationships and finance."
Tennessee National Guard Command Sergeant Major Terry Scott, who works in family support, said substance-abuse issues are also contributing factors to suicide.
The Guard Your Buddy app has received positive reviews.
"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," said Scott. "Being an electronic device, it is what they are in tune with."
Flatt said the high-tech tool provides soldiers the immediacy that could save a life.
"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 his foundation, the guard and E4, a Dallas-based national employee assistance company that provides the clinicians, worked on the 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 beginning January 1, all Tennessee National Guardsmen must have a card with the web site and app information on it.
"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," said Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam (Editing by Jerry Norton and Patricia Reaney; For the latest Reuters lifestyle news see: http://www.reuters.com/news/lifestyle))