Col. Michael Miller, commander of Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and the 2nd Bomb Wing, on Monday admitted a comment he made about suicide at the base’s official resiliency day last week was poorly chosen, “insensitive and inappropriate.”
“I’m sorry, but suicide is just a chickenshit way to go,” Miller reportedly said at the 1.2 mile run, according to the unofficial Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page. Commenters on Barksdale’s own Facebook page also said he made the comment.
In a statement provided to Air Force Times Monday, Maj. Andrew Caulk, head of public affairs for the 2nd, said the reported sentence did not fully represent the context of Miller’s remarks.
“First, let me say that my choice of words was poor," Miller said. “I referenced the act of suicide in a manner that was insensitive and inappropriate. However, that one sentence doesn’t capture the context or the intent of the message I was trying to relay.”
“Battling through pain to ask for help is one of the most courageous things we can do,” Miller continued. “Asking for help is hard, so we need to build that sense of family where it is acceptable to ask for help from each other.”
Caulk said in a follow-up phone call that “Col. Miller’s intent in talking to the wing Friday was a call to our airmen to be courageous in seeking help.”
Miller’s comments came a day after the Air Force sounded an alarm about a concerning increase in suicide rates so far this year. Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein on Thursday ordered all wings to stand down for a day of their choosing over the following 45 days to focus on resiliency and suicide prevention. And in a video posted online that day, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright said 78 airmen had taken their own lives so far in 2019 — 28 more than had died by suicide at the same point in 2018, and putting the Air Force at risk of losing 150 to 160 airmen that way by the time 2019 ends.
In his letter announcing the “resiliency pause,” Goldfein expressed concern that young people who kill themselves may see themselves as a burden to others, and that they may see taking their own lives as a way to relieve their loved ones of that burden. And Goldfein challenged leaders to consider how they see the airmen entrusted to their care.
“Do we see them as a blessing ... or as a burden?” Goldfein wrote. “Start with an honest assessment of how you see your airmen. How do your airmen see themselves?”
Caulk said that Miller had already scheduled the resiliency day before Air Force leadership ordered similar stand-downs.
In his Monday statement, Miller also said his “heart has been heavy with all of the deaths the 2nd Bomb Wing has experienced recently.” Because of that, he ordered the stand down day, including the resilience run, to generate awareness on the topic of “preventing suicide through strengthening our Air Force family.”
“As a sitting commander, I take this issue very seriously and care about every single one of our airmen,” Miller said. “I would do anything to help any one of them who may be suffering. ... My biggest fear is that airmen become so overwhelmed with life and work, that they feel as though they have nowhere to go, when, in fact, they have an entire Air Force family to turn to.”
“I want all airmen to know that they are surrounded by a family who cares for and values them,” Miller said. “We have the will, resolve and support in place to assist any member that is struggling. They are never alone or without help."
But Miller’s comments were widely criticized on the amn/nco/snco page, and on Barksdale’s own Facebook page, as being insensitive.
“Just shows a total disregard for people and their families,” one commenter on the Barksdale page said.
“Maybe debasing and ridiculing people is why no one goes to their leadership for help,” another said.
The military has frequently struggled to find the right way to talk about suicide and mental health, and it has not always gone well. In June, a Marine colonel at Twentynine Palms, California, sent an email to staff in which he referred to suicide as “shameful” and suggested Marines read scripture and attend religious services to boost their resiliency.
“Suicide is a shameful act. Period. Getting help is not,” Marine Col. Dom Ford, commander of Marine Corps Communication-Electronics School at Twentynine Palms, wrote in his June email.
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.