Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Roy discussed the importance of suicide prevention during a speech at the winter meeting of the Air Force Association. Here, he talks with airmen of the 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron during a December visit to Misawa Air Base, Japan. (Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse / Air Force)
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ORLANDO, Fla. — Suicide is something the Air Force's top noncommissioned officer admits he doesn't like to talk about, but he is. And he promises to keep talking about it until every airman realizes killing himself is no solution to a problem.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy brought his sober message to hundreds of airmen and officers gathered here from across the country Feb. 17 and 18 for the winter meeting of the Air Force Association.
"It's not one of those subjects you find so enticing to follow a lunch or happy events," Roy explained almost apologetically to his audience.
Roy didn't explicitly mention suicide, though, until almost the end of his 30-minute speech when he showed a videotape of interviews with the parents and friends of Airman 1st Class Austin Gates Benson, who killed himself May 3, 2010, during a deployment to Afghanistan. Benson was assigned to the 54th Combat Communications Squadron at Robins Air Force Base, Ga.
"His death came as a shock; his death by suicide crushed us," Joie Gates said of her son, known as G.B. "No one saw it coming."
After Gates Benson killed himself, Robins increased its suicide prevention awareness efforts.
"We now know lots of organizations [to provide counseling and assistance]," Airman 1st Class Travis Porter, a friend of Gates Benson, told the camera. "I love him and I miss him."
The videotape served as an example of what Roy said he fears can happen when airmen don't have what has become known across the services as "resiliency."
"We've been at war over 10 years. Our force along with their family members are certainly feeling stressors," Roy said. "It's something the Air Force needs to talk about."
Resiliency is essential to readiness, Roy said.
"We provide our airmen the best equipment in the entire world, without a doubt. But it's the airmen that operate it, it's the airmen that maintain it, and it's the airmen that support it," Roy said. "Our airmen and their families are the most important asset that we have. And we have to take that into consideration."
The Air Force, according to Roy, is focusing on four components to prevent suicides — physical, mental, spiritual and social. The program, called Comprehensive Airmen Fitness, is already in place at Air Combat Command and Air Mobility Command.
Physical fitness is being improved through the servicewide tougher physical training test standards put in place a year ago, Roy said.
Bases are being creative in addressing the mental and spiritual components, Roy said. MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., has assigned mental health technicians and psychiatrists to units; Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., has a chaplain in its maintenance shop.
Creating a social network, a support system for airmen outside their families, is perhaps the Air Force's biggest challenge, Roy said, because nearly 70 percent of airmen live off base. The task becomes even more daunting when factoring in Guard members, many of whom live hundreds of miles from their units.
"Community," he said, "is so much larger than an installation."
Roy said he believes resiliency is "a lifestyle, a whole process" that the Air Force can initiate on the first day of basic training.
"You take all of those people and the base line is established," he said.
When airmen don't have coping skills, Roy said, they turn to alcohol, become less attentive to their jobs and resort to violence, hurting their children and spouses. Some, like Gates Benson, take their own lives.
In 2010, according to Roy, 100 airmen — on active duty and in the Guard and Reserve — killed themselves. The number of suicides so far this year is higher than it was at this time last year.
"We have the tools to help," Roy said, asking the airmen in the room to take his message back to their units, to care for each other and to make a commitment to be involved in suicide prevention.
"I want to make sure no other airman feels it's necessary to go to such extreme measures to end the pain."