The Air Force is making an effort to combat rising rates of suicide in its ranks through a mandatory one day “stand-down” at every U.S. base around the world.
About 80 servicemembers have died by suicide so far in 2019 -- a much higher number than at this time last year. In a video posted to the Air Force website in August, Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright said the service cannot let this keep happening.
“We lose more airmen to suicide than any other single enemy,” Wright said, calling the stand-down a chance for bases to focus on the well-being of everyone in the Air Force.
Each unit is choosing when and how to take the stand-down. For the 10th Air Base Wing, which runs the U.S. Air Force Academy, it started with bringing everyone into a campus auditorium.
“We have to stop, take a few minutes and really reinforce the fact that connections matter,” said Wing Commander Col. Brian Hartless.
Hartless brought in a speaker for his airmen. Retired marine officer Michael McNamara has been speaking about suicide awareness and coping with post-traumatic stress at military installations around the country.
“We have to be the first generation of leaders in the United States military to look at those junior to us and say ‘You’ve got to talk about your stuff. If you don’t it will eat you alive,’” McNamara said.
On stage, McNamara told the airmen about the lasting psychological repercussions of his own combat trauma. The nonprofit Citizens Commission on Human Rights reports more than 80 percent of military suicides occur with people who have never seen combat.
“It’s so important that people understand that trauma is trauma is trauma,” McNamara said.
The Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University rates top factors for military suicides as relationship problems, legal issues and other workplace difficulties.
Feeling open to talking about depression can really help, but it often proves difficult for military servicemen and women.
Eric Caine, co-director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center, worked on suicide prevention programs with the Air Force in the 1990s. He said it can be hard to square decades of military customs with this newer push to share emotions.
“How do you have a culture which is highly resilient and strong but also reflective and in some sense self-correcting … in order to be better? So, it's a complex process,” Caine said.
At Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, 20-year-old Air Force Personnelist Adriana Morales said some airmen don’t want to admit to their superiors that they’re having mental health issues.They’re afraid it will hurt their military careers. But she said she’s feeling the start of a cultural change.
“Lately, it has been open,” Morales said. “It’s definitely been open in the office I work with especially that there is an open-door policy and you can definitely talk to the people in your office without it affecting your career.”
Morales’ colleague, 23-year-old Personnelist Chase Schiplett, said he’s happy to see more of a focus on interpersonal communication.
“You only see what people want you to see, you know what I mean? Even like our supervisor, they could be not having a good time with their life right now and just be sad,” Schiplett said, who is learning the importance of reaching out to his fellow airmen.
“Every day it’s just like ‘How are you?’ Ask someone how they’re doing, ask how their kids are, you know?” Schiplett said. “Just try to be real with everyone, just try to keep it personable.”
Wright said the nationwide stand down is not a one-day effort to check a box.
“This is the beginning of a much-needed dialogue between airmen, command teams, helping agencies and frankly our entire Air Force. We have to get this thing turned around,” Wright said.
All Air Force Installations around the country are required to participate in the Stand Down by September 15th.
Texas Public Radio’s Carson Frame contributed reporting to this story.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.