Saturday, January 28, 2012

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.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Guess They Missed the Memo

At a recent campaign event, Texas Congressman Ron Paul bragged that his biggest donors don't belong to labor unions or political action committees, but they are part of well-know organizations: the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Mr. Paul was referring to service members who have given more to his presidential campaign than any other candidate.

Well, apparently the military voting bloc in South Carolina didn't get the memo. Not only did Mr. Paul finish last among the remaining candidates in yesterday's GOP primary, he also finished last among voters who identify themselves as members of the military, or veterans.

It's a key group in any Republican primary in the Palmetto State, and Mr. Paul didn't fare very well. According to exit poll data from CNN, one out of every five voters in Saturday's primary identified themselves as "veterans" (including active duty military as well). Collectively, they cast more than 126,000 votes for the various GOP candidates, and Congressman Paul collected only 12% of that bloc. By comparison, Newt Gingrich received 39% of the votes cast by South Carolina veterans, compared with 32% for Mitt Romney and 16% for Rick Santorum.

There is clear irony Congressman Paul's poor showing among military voters. Of the four remaining GOP candidates, Paul is the only one who has worn the nation's uniform (he served as an Air Force OB-GYN physician in the early 1960s). Gingrich and Romney used student deferments to avoid military service in the Vietnam era, while Santorum became eligible for the armed forces after the draft ended, and never volunteered. But their lack of service was hardly an impediment; collectively, those three candidates received over 200,000 votes from veterans in South Carolina, while Mr. Paul managed less than one-tenth of that total. Against individual candidates, Paul received less than one-third of the military votes tallied by Mr. Gingrich, and less than half of those received by Mitt Romney.

Why didn't the Congressmen fare better in South Carolina, where veterans are such an important segment of the electorate? Well, for starters, many are concerned about Mr. Paul's hopelessly naive statements on foreign policy, including his suggestion that we "accept" a nuclear-armed Iran. Among the many military veterans in South Carolina are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While none of those men and women relish the thought of another conflict in the Middle East, many are reluctant to cede hard-worn gains in pursuit of an isolationist national security agenda, and they realize that a complete U.S. withdrawal from the region would be disastrous. That's why so many of them pulled the lever for Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and even Rick Santorum.

To be fair, Congressman Paul has his supporters in the military community. But many of them are first-term, junior-enlisted personnel who have a world view similar to their civilian peers. To those voters, Paul's anti-war message has broad appeal. But among career officers and NCOs (and military retirees), there is decidedly less support for his policies, and that explains his poor showing among veterans in South Carolina.

Why does this matter? Because Florida has an even larger military population, although its a smaller segment of a huge electorate. But in the counties of Northwest Florida, the Jacksonville area, the Space Coast and the Tampa area, the military vote is a key block, one that is likely to further damage Mr. Paul's prospects on primary day in the Sunshine State.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Hold the Celebration

You could almost hear the corks popping at the White House this morning, after the Labor Department released the latest, weekly numbers for unemployment claims. After an "unexpected" increase for the week of January 7th, the most recent tally for first-time unemployment claims came in at a seasonally-adjusted total of 352,000, a decrease of more than 50,000. It was the lowest level since 2008, and the biggest one-week decline in almost seven years.

Still, not everything is rosy in the new unemployment numbers. As the WSJ reports:

A Labor Department official said "volatility is fairly common this time of year," and noted that several states had their data estimated due to the Martin Luther King holiday.


Even with the recent improvement, joblessness remains a significant worry for Americans as they head to the polls this year for the presidential election. The unemployment rate, the government's broadest snapshot of the labor market, measured 8.5% in December. The reading was the lowest level since February 2009, but still well above historic norms.

There's also the lingering problem of much-higher unemployment rates among various groups in the workforce, including veterans. In fact, the jobless rates among ex-military members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan stood at 13.1% in December 2011, a full two-percentage point increase from a year earlier. Tom Tarantino, a legislative associate for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), believes part of the problem is "structural." As he told the Washington Times:

While many corporations nationwide are invested in hiring veterans, “this is the first generation of business leaders in this country who have never served in the military,” he said. “Prior to this generation, almost everyone had served … and the military resume was something easy to translate.

“But leadership skills, being an officer, are not understood by the current employment climate. What we had to do was go back and figure out ways to do quantitative analysis so that we can effectively transition people without losing the valuable skills they got in the military.”

To help reduce joblessness among younger veterans, various groups (including the IAVA) are holding job fairs around the country. The military is also doing more to help departing service members; the Army (for example), is revamping its transition assistance programs, offering more support and preparation assistance for soldiers returning to civilian life. There is also a wealth of on-line resources for veterans looking for work.

And, to his credit, President Obama recently signed legislation that provides a tax credit to firms that hire unemployed veterans. But, as is often the case with this administration, the positive effects of the tax legislation may be swamped by other policies that will hurt out-of-work veterans.

We refer to plans for massive cutbacks in defense spending, upwards of $1 trillion over the next 10 years. Those reductions will create a ripple effect among defense contractors and other firms that are among the leading employers of veterans. With fewer contracts for new systems and required support services, those companies will reduce their payrolls, creating fewer job opportunities for ex-service members. And did we mention that many of those positions pay salaries in the low six-figures, with outstanding benefits?

In other words, the job market for young veterans may get worse before it gets better. In a bitter and ironic twist, the men and women who defended this nation over the past decade could be among the last to benefit from a supposedly improving jobs outlook.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Hits Keep on Comin'

The London Times is claiming confirmation of what must be one of the world's worst-kept secrets: Israeli intelligence (read: the Mossad) was behind last week's assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist:

The Mossad worked for months to stage the assassination of its latest Iranian nuclear scientist target last Wednesday, The London Timesreported Sunday.

Quoting unnamed Israeli sources, thenewspaper said that well-trained team of agents working in Iran set up the bomb attack on Mustafa Ahmadi Roshan, a scientist at the Natanz nuclear facility. He also was involved in missile development.


It said that agents followed Roshan’s movements from a “safe house” and also staked out Iran’s intelligence headquarters in Tehran, where unusual activity the morning of the assassination almost forced an abortion of the strike.

Iran apparently took steps to protect Roshan, whose bodyguard checked his Peugeot 405 vehicle for explosives before driving.

The motorcycle used in the attack was hidden in a garage, and after Roshan and his driver entered the vehicle around 8 a.m., the Mossad agents gave the order to carry out the operation, the Times stated.

The masked motorcyclist attached the magnetic bomb to the car, and it exploded exactly nine seconds later, mortally wounding Roshan and his driver.

For what it's worth, Time is out with a similar report, claiming the Mossad has trained and paid assassins to carry out a string of hits against scientists and officials connected with Iran's WMD program. Those assassinations, coupled with last year's Stuxnet computer virus attack, have reportedly had a crippling effect on Tehran's nuclear efforts, delaying final development of an atomic weapon.

The latest operation sent chills through certain Iranian circles. Through its so-called "secret war," the Mossad has demonstrated the ability to penetrate the highest levels of Tehran's nuclear program, targeting key scientists and administrators. Indeed, the attack that eliminated Mustafa Ahmadi Roshan and his driver must be particularly disturbing for the late scientist's colleagues and Iranian security officials. Members of the Mossad team clearly had detailed knowledge of Roshan's travel habits and vulnerable points along his route. The message couldn't be more clear: if you're an important figure in Iran's nuclear program, the Israelis have the ability to locate and target you, even if you have a security detail.

Still, we haven't heard of any Iranian scientists dropping out of the program, and the Tehran regime remains determined to get a bomb. And that's the real bottom line in this scenario. While these targeted assassinations are stunning examples of the covert operational art, they cannot completely derail Iran's nuclear efforts. Roshan will be replaced, and Iran's bomb-building efforts will lurch forward. The delays brought about by killing a particular scientist or engineer may be measured in just days or weeks.

Meanwhile, there is no consensus in the west for effective, long-term solutions that might include military action. Additionally, the Obama Administration is doing all it can to dissuade Israel from launching an airstrike that might cripple or destroy key Iranian nuclear facilities. It was announced over the weekend that General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will visit Israel in the coming days to meet with his IDF counterpart. The tone of the discussions will reportedly be "frank." In other words, we're leaning heavily on the Israelis to forego a preemptive attack, hoping that a new round of sanctions will do the trick.

General Dempsey is an able man, and the upcoming visit will affirm what he already knows: Israeli patience has it limits. In the interim, the Mossad will keep chipping away at Iran's nuclear program, eliminating key figures in an effort to buy time until the U.S. decides to act, or Israel decides to act on its own.

Back in the DPRK

Guess we know why the North Korean masses recently gathered to wave their arms and shout praises to the "Great Successor," Kim Jong-un. They were trying to stay warm. reports that even the elites are feeling the chill this winter:

Many of the residents of luxury apartments in Pyongyang are leaving their homes for the heated homes of relatives or other warmer locations.

An inside source who visited Pyongyang at the end of last month said in a phone interview with the Daily NK today, “People previously had no supplies of water so didn't have drinking water and could not go to the bathroom without difficulty, but now that there are heating problems too the people are inevitably leaving their homes. This year, many people are locking their homes and leaving for warmer places.”

The source said, “When I went to Pyongyang just three years ago, the people still stayed in their apartments even without heat, but now half of them are gone, they went to East Pyongyang where the pre-1980s homes are heated with charcoal briquettes.”

The source added, “Even until last year, the residents in these apartments spent the whole winter season there with cotton blankets on the floor all day long, filling pint bottles with hot water to warm their blankets when they slept; however, as the situation has gotten worse this year whole families cannot take any more and have chosen to leave their homes behind.”

Obviously, Daily NK isn't exactly regime-friendly, but reports of widespread shortages are common-place in The Worker's Paradise. More than a decade ago, we saw imagery of North Korean commuters, forced to ride atop rail cars because fuel and electricity shortages limited the daily train schedule. Other reports indicate that the average citizen of the DPRK subsists on little more than a bowl of rice each day, and if they're lucky, they get protein two times a week. No wonder the average South Korean is now 3-4 inches taller (and 30-40 pounds heavier) than his counterpart up North.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the Daily NK report is where the latest electricity shortages are occurring. The folks abandoning those "luxury" apartments are elite of North Korea, the very constituency that Kim Jong-un must placate to consolidate and maintain his hold on power. During the last years, of his father's rule, the faintest signs of regime opposition began to emerge in North Korea, despite all the implements of a modern police state. Now, with the elites suffering some of the same deprivations as the masses, there will be renewed speculation about Kim Jong-un's ability to retain control of a decaying dictatorship, the political-military equivalent of those apartment buildings on Gwangbok Street.

One final thought: if conditions are that bad in the "upscale" neighborhoods of Pyongyang, you can only imagine what the peasants are enduring.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Haven't Verified this Claim as True...

...but if it is, it's one hell of a story. From Bob

Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, America's deadliest sniper of all time with 255 kills, punched the truther former Governor of Minnesota in the face for being an ass in front of the family of CMOH recipient Michael Monsoor, calling the SEALs murderers and saying they deserved to die.

Kyle offered his version of the episode on the Opie and Anthony radio show. The recipient of his fist, Jesse Ventura, has not responded publicly.

On behalf of everyone who grew tired of Ventura long ago, we can only offer two words to Chief Kyle:

"Thank You."