Facing 100 suicides a year and a spike in 2019, Air Force leaders have given units until mid-September to stand down from work for a day to discuss the issue.
The Air Force has had 78 suicides since January, prompting Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein to order the stand-down.
“Today I directed Air Force leaders to take a day and engage their teams on the most important issue we face in the Air Force. We must do better with our discussion around the issue of suicide,” Goldfein said in Facebook. “This year we have lost 78 Airmen. One life lost is too many.”
The Air Force has used stand-downs to address shortcomings for decades. From aerial mishaps to public affairs pratfalls, Air Force leaders see the stand-down as a way to get their subordinates’ attention.
The military has been grappling with suicide even as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. A Pentagon study of the 478 suicides across the armed services in 2016 found some common factors.
The Defense Department determined that most suicides occur among white males between the ages of 20 and 24. The bulk of suicide victims are enlisted. Divorce is a common thread and so is a lack of college classes.
The study found that suicide rates were falling for soldiers and Marines but not in the Air Force.
“The suicide rate for the Air Force has increased, incrementally, since 2011,” the Pentagon found.
The Air Force’s top enlisted airman, Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright, said honesty and straight talk could lead the service to a solution.
“Our Chief of Staff, Gen. Goldfein, is directing our leaders on the ground to take a day and engage their teams ... to find ways to keep airmen from taking their own lives,” Wright wrote on Facebook. “This is the most important issue we face as leaders of airmen. Please be open and share real feedback when your teams get together and when your command teams ask for help.”
Goldfein said leaders need to understand that preventing suicide is their responsibility.
“Make this time matter. Make it yours,” he said of the stand-down. “We must take the time to listen, connect and address the issues that are shifting our teammates’ outlook from hopeful to hopeless.”