As suicide numbers have recently risen among service members, first-hand experience in grappling with the root causes and identifying effective preventive approaches still presents a vexing and difficult challenge, according to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.
In the early 1990s, an airman under Goldfein’s wing took his own life the day his squadron was scheduled to deploy overseas, Goldfein told U.S. News & World Report in a feature story.
“We had to go tell his unit, on the day of their deployment, that he wasn’t going to make it,” Goldfein recounted.
Suicide has become an increasing concern in the military, particularly for the Air Force where nearly 1,000 airmen have taken their lives since 2010, according to DOD studies recently reported by On Base.
“We have the statistics on the pressures that add up that tend to be the ones that most often end poorly,” Goldfein said in the feature piece.
“It’s relationships, it’s financial, it’s career troubles, they’re under investigation or something goes south. It’s the pressures that build up, and then the question is: Does that individual have the resiliency to find a path, any hope that this can end in a different place than where it ended for him,” Goldfein said.
“Every commander who’s lost someone to suicide has got that story that’s burned into their psyche for life,” he said.
Last year Goldfein spoke strongly about the issue at an annual conference attended by each of his hundreds of wing commanders, according to the report. He ordered them to visit Air Force basic training graduations and witness the hope of young airmen. He wanted commanders to consider how to prevent it from turning into hopelessness.
Goldfein has acknowledged his admonition has not worked with 78 airmen suicides this year, up from 50 the same time in 2018, and presently the service is on track to lose 150 airman or more this year.
“I actually don’t know what’s going on,” Goldfein told U.S. News & World Report. “And I certainly can’t point to our programs today and say that they’re working.”
Late last month Goldfein issued a service-wide “stand down” ordering Air Force supervisors down the chain to pause military activities for a day prior to Sept. 15 to address suicide, as On Base has reported.
Suicide among service members has troubled DOD, forcing the issue into the public due to almost two decades of continuous war, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Goldfein recognizes the rigorous deployment tempo of the Air Force since 2001, with airmen facing months-long tours in multiple combat zones, the report said.
Whether the Air Force can overcome the vexing issue on its own, the service’s top officer says there’s no alternative, according to the report.
“We have to,” he said. “I’m not sure I’m locked in to doing it on our own, but I don’t think we can wait around for help. These are airmen who are entrusted to our care. I don’t want to fall into the trap of believing that we shouldn’t get after this on our own. I think it’s a sacred duty for leaders,” he added.
Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Horton