'You've Got To Talk About Your Stuff': The Air Force Stands Down To Discuss Suicide
In response to a string of suicides in the Air Force, every base is holding a one day stand down, where airmen can learn and talk about mental health issues.
The U.S. Air Force is making an effort to combat rising rates of suicide in its ranks through a mandatory one day "stand down" at every base around the country.
About 80 servicemembers have died by suicide so far in 2019 -- a much higher number than at this time last year. In a video posted to the Air Force website in August, Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth Wright said the service cannot let it keep happening.
"We lose more airmen to suicide than any other single enemy," Wright said, calling the stand down a chance for bases to focus on the well-being of everyone in the Air Force.
Each unit is choosing when and how to take the stand down. For the 10th Air Base Wing, which runs the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, it started with bringing everyone into a campus auditorium.
"We have to stop, take a few minutes, and really reinforce the fact that connections matter," said wing commander Col. Brian Hartless.
Hartless brought in a speaker for his airmen. Retired Marine officer Michael McNamara has spoken about suicide awareness and coping with post-traumatic stress at military installations around the country.
"We have to be the first generation of leaders in the United States military to look at those junior to us and say, 'You've got to talk about your stuff; if you don't it will eat you alive,'" McNamara said.
On stage, McNamara told the airmen about the lasting psychological repercussions of his own combat trauma. But the nonprofit Citizens Commission on Human Rights reports more than 80 percent of military suicides occur with people who have never seen combat.
"It's so important that people understand that trauma is trauma is trauma," McNamara said.
The Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University rates top factors for military suicides as relationship problems, legal issues, and other workplace difficulties.
Overcoming stigma requires culture change
Feeling open to talking about depression can really help, but it often proves difficult for military servicemen and women.
Eric Caine is the co-director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center. He worked on suicide prevention programs with the Air Force in the 1990s. He said it can be hard to square decades of military customs with this newer push to share emotions.
"How do you have a culture which is highly resilient and strong, but also reflective and in some sense self-correcting?" he asked. "So, it's a complex process."
On September 3 at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, some 500 airmen gathered in a dimly lit theater to hear from base leadership and a suicide prevention activist.
Kristen Christy, the Air Force’s Spouse of the Year for 2018, shared the story of how suicide nearly destroyed her family. Christy's husband, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Don Christy, died by suicide in early 2008 after serving in Iraq. In the aftermath of his passing, his sons Ben and Ryan struggled. Ryan was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 16 and developed a pattern of hard drug use that he later overcame. He has since disappeared. Ben was wracked with grief for more than a decade. Both sons attempted suicide.
Kristen Christy said her family’s sadness will never go away but she takes comfort in activism and engaging with the Air Force community.
"I'm here to tell you that there is no room on this battlefield for strangers. There is no room on this battlefield for silence,” she said. “And what's left of me and my family, we're here to talk about it because there's healing in it for us."
After the formal presentation, airmen and their units broke off into small groups, where they discussed concerns around mental health reporting and other issues. Chaplains and other health providers were on hand to help facilitate.
Brig. Gen. Laura Lenderman, commander of Joint Base San Antonio’s 502nd Air Base Wing, said in an interview that the Air Force community is trying to figure out what’s behind the rise in suicides.
“I think it has us baffled right now as a nation, honestly, because it’s rising nationally, and we’re a microcosm of the national trend,” she said. “I think it hits us hard because we are a close community and we rely on each other day in and day out, so it matters, and it hits us in our heart.”
Senior Airman Nyasha Saint Arromand-Wells said it can be hard for airmen to ask for help, especially when they're seen as protectors.
“I think a lot of people don't think that they could go and seek help. Especially in the military, I feel like there's this culture where you have to be strong because you are the person defending the country. So you have to be the backbone.”
Arromand-Wells said it helps when leaders model vulnerability and guide their units to resources.
"You have to recognize that you need help. But having leadership you can confide in helps, also. So it's a two-way street.”
Air Force personnelist Adriana Morales said some airmen don't want to admit to their superiors that they're having mental health issues because they're afraid it will hurt their military careers. But she did say she's feeling the start of a cultural change.
"Lately, it has been open," Morales said. "It's definitely been open in the office I work with especially that there is an open-door policy, and you can definitely talk to the people in your office without it affecting your career."
Morales' colleague, personnelist Chase Schiplett, said he's happy to see more of a focus on interpersonal communication.
"You only see what people want you to see, you know what I mean? Even like our supervisor, they could be not having a good time with their life right now and just be sad," Schiplett said, who is learning the importance of reaching out to his fellow airmen.
"Every day it's just like 'How are you?' Ask someone how they're doing, ask how their kids are, you know?" Schiplett said. "Just try to be real with everyone, just try to keep it personable."
Wright, the chief master sergeant, said the nationwide stand down is not a one day effort to check a box.
"This is the beginning of a much-needed dialogue between airmen, command teams, helping agencies and frankly our entire Air Force. We have to get this thing turned around," Wright said.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.