Preventing suicide in the Air Force

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. David Smith
  • 23rd Wing Plans
Her father's words brought fresh tears to my eyes that day when I heard him say, "Well, at least the rain is helping to hide my tears."

The place was a small town in western Montana, Nov. 21, 2001.

Yes, nearly 7 years ago and it still hurts. For you see, I was at the grave-side service of this man's youngest friend. The funeral had been a closed casket affair, for sadly enough my friend had taken her own life with a hand gun...suicide.

Out of respect for her memory and her family they will remain nameless in this tale.

I firmly believe as Air Force leaders we must do everything in our power to prevent suicide!

If you'll bear with me I will touch on the definition of suicide; some reasons to prevent it and a way you can enhance prevention.

According to an encyclopedia on the web: suicide (from Latin sui caedere, to kill oneself) is the act of willfully ending one's own life; it is sometimes a noun for one who has committed or attempted the act ( np). I've often heard it called, "A permanent solution to a temporary problem".

Now that we have a working definition of suicide, let's take a look at why we should prevent it.

One of the first reasons that come to my mind is experience. My friend was one of the most gifted sheet metal troops (structural repair) I've ever known in my 24-plus years in the Air Force. She had over 12 years of experience. Talents like hers are never easily replaced.

Another reason, at the risk of being callus, is some of the costs involved with losing an Air Force member. According to the Web site, initial training for an aircraft structural maintenance apprentice (sheet metal troop) costs $17,325 and takes 21.7 weeks to complete. For a pararescue apprentice, the price tag is $147,348 and 103.5 weeks. That's just shy of two years invested! These were the costs back in fiscal year 2000.

Let's face it, just like almost everything else these days, it does not cost any less now. Now please keep in mind this is for a three-level apprentice, not someone who has accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience that only comes with time and exposure to their vocation. No disrespect intended to our hard working three-levels out there!

My final reason for preventing suicide is "sustaining the mission." The fact is it takes our most valuable resource to accomplish the mission, our people! According to the Professional Formal Education, active duty suicides can have a direct impact on mission sustainability through loss of the victim's productivity and the associated disruption it causes.

Who among us can reasonably argue that? I once heard Chief Master Sgt. Paul Wheeler, former Air Combat Command security forces functional manager, state during an address to the 824th Security Forces Squadron a couple years ago, "security forces manning continues to be 2,000 personnel below current mission demands." Talk about doing more with less!

The loss of even one person in a stressed career field can and often does have far-reaching effects. For example, where once there were sufficient personnel to support eight-hour shifts, people are forced to work longer and longer hours. I have seen that this often has other negative affects in the unit as well.

Now that we've looked at some of the reasons for preventing suicide, I would like to tell you about a program I have personally attended that can enhance your own prevention capabilities. The program is called Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, ASIST for short.

According to the Living Works Suicide Prevention Education Web page, ASIST is a two-day workshop that helps increase people's ability to recognize when someone may be at risk of suicide and reach out in a supportive way that links them with further resources.

The importance of linking people to informal supports, such as family and friends, and options for professional help is emphasized. Participants say the workshop increased their confidence and ability to recognize and approach someone who may be at risk of suicide, and it provided other resources through the Living Works Web page.

I can personally attest to that last part! As a former first sergeant, I have put the training to use on numerous occasions. Every single time I have been involved in an Article-15 action, the member receiving the Article-15 has not left my sight until the question has been asked by me, eyeball to eyeball, "Are you okay, are you considering hurting yourself or anyone else?"

Not an easy task I assure you. It is can be an uncomfortable situation to have to be so direct. I can honestly say ASIST training helped alleviate some of those uncomfortable feelings because that is one of the skills practiced in a controlled environment.

Now let me take a minute and recap. I've expressed my position followed by a definition of suicide. I also gave you three reasons to prevent suicide: loss of experience, some costs involved and loss of our most valuable asset...our people. And finally, I shared with you information about a program I've personally attended that can help to enhance your prevention skills as well.

Could I have made a difference prior to that rainy day in November 2001? Tragically, I will never know - not something I'd ever wish on anyone. I can tell you this though; today I'm better equipped to deal with this deadly and serious topic. You can be too.