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Air Force calls for culture change in bid to reduce suicides

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson on May 16, 2017, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. (Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley/Department of Defense)

Air Force senior leaders issued a memo calling for a culture change after a total of 11 airmen and Air Force civilians died by suicide in the first four weeks of 2019.

The number of suicides within the ranks has remained relatively flat in recent years; however, the service wants to do more to bring the suicide rate down, stated a Feb. 5 memo signed by Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright.

In January, five active duty airmen, four civilian employees, one Air National Guard member and one reservist died by suicide, according to data provided to Stars and Stripes by the Air Force.

In the first quarter of 2018, the Air Force had 11 servicemember suicide deaths, a Pentagon report found last year. The report did not include civilian deaths.

The memo urged airmen to work toward preventing suicide deaths by supporting one another and seeking assistance if needed.

“We need an Air Force culture where it is more common to seek help than to try to go at it alone,” the memo stated. “We expect each of us to know what resources are available, help those in need, and stand alongside our Wingmen throughout a crisis or challenge. No one is alone, and we are all valued members of our Air Force family.”

The memo comes as other services have struggled to limit suicides in their ranks in recent years.

The Navy, which is the only service that publishes its suicide rates online, has seen steady increases in its active-duty suicide rate since 2015. The online data dating back to 2006 shows that last year’s 68 active-duty Navy suicides marked the service’s highest number in more than a decade.

Meanwhile, the number of suicides and suspected suicides among active-duty Marines hit a 10-year high, according to data from Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

The Marine Corps counted 44 verified and 13 suspected suicides in the active-duty force, and an additional 18 verified and suspected in the Reserve for a total of 75.

The Army lost 138 active-duty soldiers, 115 Army National Guard and 47 Army reservists to suicide. This marks almost no change from 2017, and an Army spokeswoman said last month that more work must be done to continue the service’s progress in reducing the numbers.

The Air Force recorded 101 servicemember and civilian employee suicides last year, consistent with the annual number for the past five years, which has hovered around 100.

The service’s leadership is not satisfied with “flat-lined” numbers and is committed to supporting airmen and their families with the aim of “never losing another Airman to suicide,” said Brig. Gen. Michael E. Martin, director of Air Force Resilience, in a statement.

Military personnel who need help can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 and press 1 for assistance, or text 838255.


© 2019 the Stars and Stripes

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