Air Force orders first-ever day off from training to tackle rising number of suicides

Local News

COLUMBUS (WCMH/WNCN) — The Air Force has ordered all units to stand down for one day to focus on suicide prevention.

Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright said the one day “tactical pause” is needed to address the suicide epidemic in the Air Force where 78 airmen have committed suicide this year.

“We lose more airmen to suicide than any other single enemy. Even more than combat. Seventy-eight of our brothers and sisters have given up on life this year alone,” Wright stressed.

The local Ohio Air National Guard in Columbus, where there are 1,190 Airmen, will stand down in September.

U.S. Air Force Col. David Johnson, 121st Air Refueling Wing Commander said local Airmen will spend the first four hours of their September unit training assembly meeting together as a wing and then in smaller groups.

The wing level gathering will introduce the problem the Air Force faces and address healthy behaviors such as “being good wingmen, engaging in appropriate self-care, and seeking help early,” Johnson explained.

The smaller groups will attempt to build connections and gather feedback from Airmen, he said.

“The purpose of the tactical pause is to connect with the Airmen on a personal level, regardless of rank or position. We want them to know that their value is not what’s on their uniform, it’s what’s in their uniform. They are more valuable to us and the mission not because of the job they do, but because of who they are,” Johnson said in a written statement.

The number of suicides by Airmen so far this year is on pace to top more than 150 lives lost, officials said.

There have been 28 more suicides in 2019 than at this time last year, Wright noted.

“If we don’t do something, we could lose up to 150 to 160 airmen in 2019. We can’t let this keep happening. 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 …,” Wright said.

In a video posted on the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service website and the United States Air Force Facebook page, Wright explained why the Air Force ordered its first-ever suicide stand down — a day off from training to focus on an epidemic of young people like Airman Xinhua Mesenberg who have taken their own lives.

In the Marine Corps, 2018 was the worst year ever with 77 suicides and 354 attempts. Gen. Robert Neller, who recently retired as commandant, wrote in four years he had lost 224 Marines to suicide and only four to combat.

In a Facebook post, he said, “let us help each other.”

In his letter, Neller speculated social media might have something to do with it. But he seemed to doubt taking to social media himself would do much good.

The Air Force one day stand down was ordered by General David L. Goldfein on Aug. 1.

“We must take the time to listen, connect and address the issues that are shifting our teammates’ outlook from hopeful to hopeless. As leaders, wingmen, as brothers and sisters in arms — we must take care of each other,” Goldfein said in a Facebook post.

Goldfein gave airmen until Sept. 15 to hold their “resilience tactical pause,” the Air Force Times reported.

Wright said the one day stand down marked the beginning of a much-needed dialog between airmen, command teams, helping agencies and the entire Air Force.

“We have to get this thing turned around,” Wright said.

What’s happening in the military is also happening in the civilian world.

Suicide rates nationwide rose 31% since 2001. Among young people, it is the second leading cause of death after accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For immediate help if you are in a crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All calls are confidential.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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