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.


Ray said...

Two remarks. First, that the suicide rate is going up is an alarming trend, but this is the sort of thing where the numbers are relatively so small, that statistics can mess with you a lot. Take the Army's 9% drop, for instance: it's a drop from 300 to 278, but if we assume that suicides occur like a Poisson process (fairly standard methodology), then the standard deviation there is about 17, so the drop may be one of those "good things just happen randomly sometimes" results, rather than anything to congratulate the Army's policies about. Similar arguments may apply to any rise in rates. Anecdotal information, such as widespread reports of lack of trust and the uselessness of suicide prevention, is probably more useful than any short-term statistical trends.

Second, it's extremely unfair to compare the suicide rate of the Armed Services to the general population, given very different demographic characteristics. The military is a lot younger, and it is a lot more male - both things that cause suicide to occur at much greater levels.

The suicide rate for young adults aged 20-24 is 12.7/100,000 ( The same site says that 6 times as many males as females died from suicide. Assuming equal numbers of males and females, from just those factors alone, you'd expect on the order of 23/deaths per 100,000. A proper demographic comparison would include various other factors, such as income, regional variation, etc.

Bearing in mind the unusual stresses of military life (even in peacetime), such as being far removed from family and familiar environs, I don't think this is something to excoriate the military about. If anything, I'd say this gives some evidence that the military does a surprisingly good job of providing emotional support and stability to young people in a very turbulent and scary stage of life. That the military is trying to do better is heartening, and that the suicide rate is going up is bad. But these things do not mean that military life is in any way more likely to cause suicide than, say, going to college and then being unemployed, which seems to be the sad and common lot of 20-24 year olds these days.

TOF said...

Wonder how that compares with statistics from post-WWII and post-Korea. Growing up, I can recall a few of the WWII vets who, even as a pre-teen, I thought were stark staring nuts.

Storms24 said...

From my own perspective, I'd have to say that most of my peers have very little regard for the current batch of suicide prevention programs the Air Force has been pushing... Just another mandatory ancillary training square to fill, no more useful than the Info Assurance or the (now defunct) DADT CBT... It was just last week that I heard one airman quip, "If they keep pushing these stupid requirements down my throat, I won't need more suicide prevention training - I'll need homicide prevention training!" It got a few chuckles but it was easy to sense that such frustration was common in the group.
The retired command chief cited in the article was spot on when he talked about the lack of trust in today’s typical wing or squadron. Supervisors don’t “trust” when an airman says he completed a course of training – they want to see the certificate. Nobody “trusts” the evaluation systems (officer or enlisted) - it’s all superlative flak with little relationship to a member’s performance…. Likewise for the awards & decs program that is unabashedly skewed to reward some AFSC’s over others. The faux “year of the family,” the “JET” (aka “in lieu of Army”) deployments, the disparate disciplinary treatment in recent high profile cases, the Fitness program…. Can we really “trust” a service that will retain and forgive the pilot who makes a critical error, endangering multi-million dollar equipment and the lives of fellow airmen…. But then initiates discharge proceedings against the airman who can’t make the 1.5 mile run under 12 minutes?
I can’t say that any of the above can be tied directly to the suicide rate – but I can say that they contribute to the level of frustration, isolation and perhaps desperation in which such tragedies seem to thrive.

OldSarg said...

Storm24 wrapped it all together rather nicely. You can have no trust for leadership when the leadership demonstrates that have no trust of you. Look at the hiring of civilians to monitor the weight/ fitness program. Why? Are those in uniform not trustworthy but you can hire some civilian for $8.00/hr and get the truth? Our clubs are dying on base because the cops haunt the parking lot, while the crew dogs celebrate in their "private" heritage" rooms as if they are the heroes (heritage room = squadron bar for officers only) within eye shot of young airmen, as we prosecute our airmen for drinking under age? Trust must come from the bottom as well as the top. It's a culture. It's missing. . .

Mozart said...

Nice article, came across your site via Gates of Vienna.

I re-posted it at my site.


Nancy Reyes said...

yes, it is a terrible problem, but you have to remember that this age group has a high suicide rate to begin with.
You note " the suicide rate for the Army is 24.1 per 100,000 personnel, significantly higher than the general population.", but this ignores the sex and age differences in suicides, which tend to be higher in young men (and old men) but lower in women.

Young men have a suicide rate of about 19/20, or maybe higher: cdc link claims that "From 1999 to 2008, the suicide death rate for persons aged 45–64 years increased overall (from 13.2 to 17.6 per 100,000 population) and for white men (from 22.6 to 30.7)".

The suicide rate for soldiers, therefore, is not much higher than expected.