After an alarming increase in suicide rates in the Air Force in 2019, Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein has ordered all wings to stand down for a day and focus on resiliency and suicide prevention.
In a video posted online Thursday, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright said 78 airmen have taken their own lives so far in 2019. That’s 28 more than had died by suicide at the same point in 2018, Wright said, and if the trend continues, the Air Force could lose 150 to 160 airmen that way this year.
“Our teammates are taking their own lives,” Wright said in the video. “We lose more airmen to suicide than any other single enemy — even more than combat. That’s 78 teammates, that’s 78 wingmen, that’s 78 spouses, that’s 78 brothers and sisters and sons and daughters. Seventy-eight, who couldn’t find a single reason to keep going.”
In a letter sent to all commanders Thursday morning, Goldfein said wings have until Sept. 15 to hold their “resilience tactical pause,” during which they will set aside a full day of their choosing to figure out what needs to be done.
In the video, Wright said the pause will be a “break in the daily grind” so units can focus on airmen and their well-being. It won’t be a “one-day effort to check a box,” Wright said, but will begin a longer-term dialogue between airmen, command teams, agencies dedicated to helping airmen and families, and the rest of the Air Force.
“We can’t let this keep happening,” Wright said. “This is our problem, and we have to dedicate ourselves every single day to building strong and healthy airmen, supporting and engaging teams, and cultures of trust and respect to help keep these airmen hopeful, to give them an opportunity to thrive in this great Air Force. ... We have to get this thing turned around.”
Through his spokesman, Senior Master Sgt. Harry Kibbe, Wright confirmed that the pause will be along the lines of the one-day safety stand down the Air Force ordered last year for flying and maintenance wings after a string of troubling, and sometimes fatal, aircraft mishaps and crashes.
The Air Force isn’t dictating how the pause should be conducted, but it will provide resources through its integrated resilience directorate.
Wright wants leaders at the local level to talk to their airmen, find out what’s going on with them, and figure out what they need to do so airmen will come to them if they need help.
And when airmen do step forward, Wright wants leaders to be prepared to provide it, whether it’s guiding airmen to a counselor, a chaplain, mental health treatment, or just by being present and helping them through their issues.
“Airmen do, and will continue, to face issues,” Wright said.
In his letter, Goldfein said he asked commanders last year to visit basic military training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland at Texas, where new airmen are made, and consider the question, “How do so many of our airmen transition from unlimited hope on that parade ground to hopeless on our watch?”
“Hopeful to hopeless ... what is going on?” Goldfein asked. “It is our job to find out.”
Goldfein also said a young person who had lost a high school friend to suicide recently told him that “young people often see themselves as a burden to others,” and that killing themselves is seen as a way to relieve their loved ones of that burden.
“It got me thinking about how we see our airmen who have been entrusted to our care,” Goldfein said in the letter, suggesting leaders a possible topic for discussion. “Do we see them as a blessing ... or as a burden? ... Start with an honest assessment of how you see your airmen. How do your airmen see themselves?”
Wright reminded leaders in the video that in all likelihood, someone in their unit is suffering from post-traumatic stress, depression, or feelings of hopelessness and may be considering suicide.
“Give them better options,” Wright said. “Let’s lead them to a better answer.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.