(Editor’s Note: Some names and identifying details of people in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.)
TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – A young Airman struggles to make it through his work day. His head is filled with thoughts of inadequacy. Negativity dominates his thoughts and he soon wonders whether or not he should continue living.
In frustration, he slams his desk and walks toward the door.
“Airman Johnson, are you all right?” asks his supervisor.
“I’ll be OK, sir. I’m just dealing with some stuff right now,” Johnson replies.
Johnson’s supervisor is concerned for his safety and asks if Johnson would be willing to share what’s going on while they walk away from the office.
“Yes, I’d like that,” Johnson says.
To date, the U.S. Air Force has lost 98 Airmen to suicide in 2019, an increase of nearly 20 total force suicides from 2018. In an effort to prevent suicide and enhance the services available to Airmen and their families, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, directed all bases to observe a resilience tactical pause.
The goal of the tactical pause was to bring Airmen together with command teams to discuss resiliency, identify issues and factors associated with the increase in suicide and allow Airmen an opportunity to provide feedback on ways the service can improve suicide prevention capabilities.
Travis AFB, which has lost two Airmen to suicide in 2019, held several tactical pause events at the unit level in September.
“Suicide is tragic and when we lose an Airman or anyone in our Travis family to suicide, it affects all of us,” said Col. Jeffrey Nelson, 60th Air Mobility Wing commander. “It is critical we do all we can to prevent suicide and enhance the quality of life for our Airmen and their families.”
Nelson said the base will apply feedback from the tactical pause events to improve services that will connect Airmen to their communities both on and off base.
“As an Air Force, we need to do a much better job communicating to our Airmen and their families that they matter. We care about them beyond what the mission may ask of us,” Nelson said. “Our Airmen are our greatest resource and we need to do all we can to care for them. Without our Airmen, there is no mission, no rapid global mobility, no Travis AFB. Without them, there is no Air Force. It’s vital we figure out how to better demonstrate to our Airmen and their families that we value every single one of them and appreciate them as human beings.”
Showing Airmen and their families that they matter is critical, said Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright.
“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 Airmen hopeful,” he said. “To give them an opportunity to thrive. That’s why General Goldfein directed a resilience tactical pause, a break in the daily grind, so we can focus on our Airmen and their well-being.
“This is not a one-day effort; this is the beginning of a much-needed dialogue between Airmen, command teams, helping agencies and, frankly, our entire Air Force to get this thing turned around,” Wright said.
Having someone you can trust, especially during stressful times, can have a profound impact, said Senior Airman Anthony West, 60th Contracting Squadron contracting specialist.
Prior to starting his freshman year at Eastern Kentucky University in the winter of 2010, West faced numerous challenges in life. His parents divorced when he was 12 and he didn’t see his father much after that. He was also bullied in high school and often told he was useless and wouldn’t amount to anything.
Despite enduring this treatment, West said he wanted to prove the haters wrong.
“I wanted to solve mysteries like I saw on CSI on TV,” he said. “I always thought that was a cool job.”
He decided to pursue a criminal justice degree at EKU and signed up for six classes during his first semester. Soon though, West, a native of the small town of Taylorsville, Kentucky, felt overwhelmed.
“Everything seemed so unfamiliar, I felt like a small fish in the ocean,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of friends, I lacked good social skills and people thought of me as awkward. I would confine myself to my room. I felt so isolated.”
In April 2011, West received his first progress report. It wasn’t good.
“I was going to fail most of the classes I was taking and the best grade I had was a D in English,” he said. “I thought there was no way I was going to pass and there was no way out. My future was dark. I was going to be a failure, the bullies in high school would be right and I didn’t know what to do. At one point, I thought, ‘What’s the point of even living?’”
West shared how he was feeling with the one friend he had on campus, his roommate Kurt.
“We talked all the time and I trusted him,” West said. “He helped me understand there were programs that could help me turn things around. He also helped me see that while what I was going through was difficult, there was and is a future for me. The next semester I took fewer classes with a reduction in financial aid, but I was still able to work toward my goal.
“Kurt took the time to listen to how I was feeling and at one point, asked me, ‘Are you OK?’” West said. “We continued to talk for an hour and a half and I’m so thankful he was there to support me.”
Eventually, West realized he would not qualify for financial aid, which meant he would be unable to afford to take courses at EKU. After some encouragement from his father, he decided to join the U.S. Air Force in May 2013, serving as a communications and navigations system technician for three years. He became a contracting specialist in October 2016. Today, he is six classes away from a Community College of the Air Force degree in business administration and he’s engaged to a woman he calls the ‘love of his life.’
“I could have been a failure, but in my opinion, I turned into a winner and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished,” West said with a smile.
Recognizing when something is wrong and getting involved, like Kurt stepped in to help West or Johnson’s supervisor stepped in to help him, is one way the Air Force can work to prevent suicide, said Maj. Daniel Jacobson, 60th Medical Operations Squadron neuropsychologist.
“When someone is suicidal, they are not able to reach out for help themselves,” Jacobson said. “Their view of the options available to them narrows, they don’t see a way out of their situation and that’s why we need to intervene and take care of them. You can’t be afraid to step in and help someone.
“Senior leaders need to demonstrate that showing genuine concern for someone is OK,” Jacobson said. “So many people are taught to mind their own business, but we need to shift that thought process to encourage people to intervene if they recognize someone needs help. You can politely ask, ‘How are you doing? Is there anything I can do for you because you look like you’re going through a difficult time?’ Everyone in the military can take the time to listen and help someone.”
Below are some resources for Airmen and their families to contact if they or someone they know need help.
Crisis Text Line: Text the word “home” to 741-741 for free confidential counseling.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-8255
Military Family Life Counselor: Call 424-395-9624 or 510-480-8993 for confidential counseling.