The U.S. Air Force Needs to Address Its Suicide Crisis

By Wes O’Donnell: For More Info, Go Here…

Commanders need to acknowledge the systemic problems that cause low morale and suicide.

Within an hour of the commander’s announcement, Joe had shot himself in the head while sitting in his truck, parked next to his favorite spot at the lake — the location of the squadron’s annual picnic.

Those of us who knew and loved him couldn’t help but feel that we had somehow failed Joe. Why didn’t someone leave the bar with him, especially in the state he was in? Does the Air Force judicial system and its “punishment culture” bear any responsibility?

What could we have done differently that would have saved his life? And how might we prevent future airmen like Joe from resorting to suicide?

Since 2010, nearly 1,000 airmen have died by suicide. Through August of this year alone, 78 airmen have killed themselves — up from 50 at the same time last year. If these rates continue, the U.S. Air Force is on track to lose 150 service members or more this year to suicide.

For many airmen and noncommissioned officers, sitting through one day of PowerPoint slides and team-building trust falls is not going to solve the Air Force suicide crisis.

When confronted with the suicide crisis and low morale, the enlisted ranks of the Air Force are not short on opinions or ideas. Commanders would be well-served to not only listen to airmen, but to also acknowledge that solutions to systemic problems can’t always be seen from 30,000 feet.

Commanders should start by looking at Air Force amn/nco/snco, a popular Facebook forum that has nearly 300,000 followers. It is a place where the enlisted ranks of the Air Force can discuss service-related issues with a degree of anonymity. Unlike many other pages and groups on Facebook which serve as an outlet to complain, Air Force amn/nco/snco members appear to actually care about their brothers and sisters and often have the best interests of the Air Force at heart.

Reading the dozens of responses from enlisted airmen, there seem to be several key issues that are contributing to low morale, which in turn, contributes to the uptick in suicides.

Toxic leadership

Perhaps most alarming is a toxic leadership problem that pervades not just the U.S. Air Force, but all branches of the military. The Department of Defense has tried to address the problem for years, but to little success. As we’ve seen with the multiple scandals involving U.S. Air Force commanders and alarmingly lax security standards around nuclear missile silos, it is increasingly common for narcissistic, cruel, and immature leaders to reach high levels of responsibility within the military.

Certainly, it would be easy for the Department of Defense to weed out incompetent leaders by increasing the number of demanding leadership courses that have a high attrition rate. According to Carl Forsling at Task & Purpose, the Royal Navy’s Perisher course provides a good blueprint for rooting out incompetent commanders. In order to be eligible for submarine command, their skippers must graduate a difficult, four-month tactical syllabus, culminating in several multi-ship exercises. The attrition rate approaches 50%.

But filtering out or removing leaders with more intimate personality ticks like self-centeredness, is a much more difficult task.

Leave a Reply