The Air Force's Near-Silent Epidemic
It's no secret: amid the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military was also waging a third battle, trying to stem a suicide epidemic within the ranks. In 2010, for example, 305 members of the Army (including National Guard and Reserve units) took their own lives. The total for 2011 was 278, a nine-percent drop from the previous year, and the first annual decline since 2007. Officials attributed the decrease to Army programs aimed at identifying at-risk individuals and intervening before they can harm themselves.
However, some of the trends are still disturbing. Despite the overall decline in Army suicides, the number actually increased among active-duty soldiers and mobilized members of the Guard and Reserve. Additionally, the suicide rate for the Army is 24.1 per 100,000 personnel, significantly higher than the general population.
Many analysts have linked the spike in military suicides to the stress of combat and repeated deployments. But Pentagon data shows that 70% of Army personnel who took their own lives had never deployed, or deployed only once during their careers. The other services report similar trends, noting that a variety of factors can cause a military member to commit suicide.
With fewer personnel in direct combat, the Air Force has reported fewer suicides among its personnel in recent years. But USAF leaders remain concerned; speaking recently at the Air Force Association's annual symposium in Orlando, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy reported than 100 airmen took their lives in 2011, and the total for 2012 may climb even higher.
But aside from Chief Roy's recent comments (summarized in a military press release), there has been relatively little discussion about the Air Force's surging suicide rate. Still, a few senior officers are talking about it; the leader of the 23rd Wing at Moody AFB, Georgia recently addressed the problem during a commander's call held earlier this month. From the Valdosta Daily Times:
“Ten lives have been lost to suicide this year,” explained Moody Air Force Base 23rd Wing Commander Colonel Billy Thomspon to an audience of about 500 airmen Friday morning.
“Guess what? It’s eleven. Twenty-two year-old airman committed suicide yesterday within 24 hours of his first duty station,” said Thompson. “I get chill bumps just saying it. He had his whole life in front of him. I care about that guy - I don’t know him, but he’s one of us; he’s one of you.”
Colonel Thompson made his commends on 207 January. Since that time, there have been additional suicides among airmen, and while the Air Force has not released an updated figure, some sources believe the January total is at least 18, putting the service on pace for more than 20 suicides in a single month. If that trend continues, the USAF could reach 200 suicides during 2012, a total that would surpass the active-duty Army. While few expect the Air Force to reach that mark, suicides among airmen are clearly on the rise.
One of the most recent incidents (that was publicly reported) occurred last Sunday, at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. Officials say Chief Master Sergeant Robert Hoyt died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The 43-year-old Hoyt joined the service in 1987 and had been assigned at Ellsworth since last May. At the time of his death, Hoyt was the superintendent for the 28th Security Forces Squadron.
The spike in Air Force suicides is surprising for several a couple of reasons. Not only are airmen presumed to be less susceptible to the stresses affecting other military members (a perception that is clearly wrong), the USAF has also been praised for suicide-prevention programs, long touted as a model for the rest of DoD. After a jump in suicides during the mid-1990s, the Air Force implemented its much-touted "wingman" program, which encourages airmen and their families to look for signs of stress and intervene before an individual reaches the crisis point.
But wingman was under review even before the current surge in suicides. And with good reason: many service members consider it ineffective. "It's a band-aid on a cancer," said one retired command chief, who served as the senior enlisted member in CONUS and USAFE units before leaving active duty."
"It's nothing more than a made-up TQM (Total Quality Management) program that is nearly worthless," he said. "I have personally witnessed these "programs" that have units putting on mandatory shows and filling the squares. They go bowling, out to lunch, play games and other bogus things that will supposedly make you feel fetter and tell me that you are suicidal. I gave a presentation at one of these Wingman gatherings and was told its was the only thing of substance and meaning that had ever been provided," the Chief continued. "The program is many years old and still worthless."
The underlying issues, he said, are character and trust.
"I've had everyone from junior personnel to senior leaders tell me they wouldn't trust anyone at certain bases," the retired Chief observed. "That is an alarming statement since trust is the foundation, cornerstone and capstone of fixing the problem. If I don't trust you as a leader, I'm sure as hell ain't going to share any personal information with you."
In response to the rise in suicides, the Air Force is strengthening is "resiliency" programs, aimed at improving the physical, mental, social and spiritual strength. Testifying before Congress last September, Lieutenant General Darrell Jones, the service's Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services, said the Air Force has implemented a two-tiered program, focusing on the resiliency of airmen and their families. The Air Force has also created a post-deployment transition center at Ramstein AB, Germany. More than 2,000 airmen have participated in the four-day decompression and reintegration course for service members returning from deployments.
But clearly, more work needs to be done. Over the past three years, the USAF is the only service whose suicide rates have increased, from 13 per 100,000 in 2009, to 15.5 per 100,000 in 2010. The Air Force hasn't released the final rate for 2011, but based on the total for 2011, it is likely that last year's rate equaled (or surpassed) the 2010 figures. During the same period, suicide rates in the Army decreased slightly, while the Marine Corps average declined from 23 per 100,000 in 2009, to 16 per 100,000 in 2010.
Maybe the Air Force should take a hard look at the USMC program, and explore it's possible integration into existing USAF efforts. And maybe the Air Force should explore the trust issue, too. Airmen are killing themselves at (or near) record levels, despite existing prevention programs and policies. There are reasons existing efforts aren't working. As that retired Chief observed, if an airmen doesn't trust his co-worker, commander or supervisor, it's a good bet they won't share information on their innermost thoughts of suicide.
Labels: USAF; suicide prevention