An Open Letter to Air Force Commanders about Suicide
By Wes O’Donnell, Veteran U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force, 1997-2007.
Note: The opinions and comments stated in the following article do not represent the views of American Military University, American Public University System, its management or other employees.
While serving in the Air Force in 2005, I remember hearing how a friend and colleague, I’ll call him Joe, got into some trouble after a night of heavy drinking. Joe was a noncommissioned officer and a highly respected team leader who could seemingly solve any maintenance problem that the E-3 Sentry (AWACS) aircraft threw at him.
On the night in question, Joe left a bar in a drunken haze and had allegedly knifed multiple tires on vehicles parked outside. Witnesses identified him, but Joe fled the scene before he could be apprehended.
Once Joe sobered up, the realization must have hit him hard that he would be facing severe disciplinary action, including the loss of his rank, forfeiture of his pay and numerous civil penalties. This realization must have been emotionally crushing to a man who, up until that point, had a spotless record.
Frantic phone calls from members of our squadron to his cell phone went straight to voicemail.
Some 48 hours later, our squadron commander entered our ready room with some dire news: Joe was missing, presumed armed and intent on hurting himself.
Less than one hour later we learned that 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 that knew and loved him couldn’t help but feel that somehow we had failed him. 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?
From Hopeful to Hopeless
Since 2010, almost 1000 airmen have committed suicide. As of August 1, 78 airmen have killed themselves, up from 50 at the same time last year. The USAF is on track to lose 150 service members or more this year to suicide.
In a recent letter to commanders across the service, Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein ordered units to “stand down” for one day within the next six weeks to address the devastating numbers of suicides among airmen.
Goldfein’s decision was first reported by Air Force Magazine.
In the letter, Goldfein recalls ordering commanders to visit Air Force basic training at Lackland Air Force Base last year and reflect on why many airmen “transition from unlimited hope on that parade ground to hopeless on our watch.”
“I would have never predicted that a year later we would stand today at 78 suicides,” he said. “Hopeful to hopeless … what is going on? It is our job to find out.”
One Day of PowerPoint Slides Is Not Enough
For many airmen and noncommissioned officers, standing down for one day of PowerPoint slides and team-building trust falls is not going to solve the Air Force suicide crisis.
A popular Air Force forum is the Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page which boasts 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. Typically, airmen and spouses can message the page, ask to be anonymous and get their question or statement in front of the sizable group for discussion.
Unlike many other pages and groups on Facebook that 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.
When confronted with the suicide crisis, the enlisted ranks of the Air Force are not short on opinions or ideas. Air Force commanders would be well-served to not only listen to airmen but acknowledge that solutions to systemic problems that cause low morale and suicide can’t always be seen from 30,000 feet, no matter how good your JSTARS is.
If commanders could open themselves up to anonymous ideas for improvement, they might see something like this:
Note: The following are ideas from enlisted airmen to squadron, group and wing commanders, They are used with permission from Air Force amn/nco/snco on Facebook. The text has been slightly edited for content flow:
Dear Air Force Commanders,
Exercises: The Air Force does far too many. They should consider cutting as many as possible, starting immediately. As soon as one ends, they start prepping and charting the next one. The effect is feeling that exercises are either being prepped or going on every month, all year long.
The sky will not fall by doing less and all those that the AF can control, they can change. In fact, I was at a base that did just this and believe it or not, it felt good for the collective base to take a breather and focus on the mission and families.
Distinguished Visitor (DV) Visits: Knock them off already! Year after year, month after month, week after week all bases are impacted. The leaders say they need to get out and see their bases; we see how that’s helped. Record suicides, mold in housing and dorms, etc. Lot of good they did right, and this was with the CMSAF, CSAF and SECAF going to Lackland many times over the last few years.
They aren’t achieving what these leaders hoped and even when they tell bases that the visits will be low key, they never are. These leaders must trust their commanders at the bases and get out of the way. Wing Staff meeting calendars are full of DV visits and I’ve had commanders pulled away for weeks at a time to run them. Airmen are not hanging on your every slogan. You are taking them away from their jobs and some are being called in on their off-duty days.
Inspections: Limit them. Whether Inspector General [IG] or compliance, they are literally hindering the mission, unless the mission is nonstop inspection prep and dog and pony shows. Also, change the yearly inspections for the Installation of the Year award, DFAC of the Year award, etc. Hardly anyone cares who wins them. We don’t need to know supposedly who’s the best “X” every single year. Those all take away from the mission.
Physical Training (PT): AF leaders have done nothing to help with PT for over 5 years, while they kicked out thousands of enlisted [personnel]. These were on top of the force-shaping cuts.
Change the discharge recommendation requirement which kicked into high gear back in 2010. CMSAF has done nothing to help with PT. They are talking about more mock tests without penalty; this may backfire as many toxic units are already mock testing people monthly. Commanders have always had an option to not punish as the recommendations are controlled by commanders, so this new supposed fix just basically tries to stop the punishment culture, which was never mandatory. There should be little to no mock PT tests.
They should look at changing the age brackets and audit the entire PT program that was last audited in 2008. That audit showed commanders failing to achieve a fitness lifestyle for their airmen. That remains the same today, as the focus is on passing a test.
Lastly, make PT during duty hours mandatory again in the Air Force Instruction [AFI], three times a week like it was. Until they do so, they just show they don’t really care about creating a culture and lifestyle for airmen. Far too many squadrons just demean their airmen who failed by a situp, a pushup or a few seconds on the run. The AC is one of the lowest failed areas, yet here’s a culture built around the myth that all who fail are just overweight or out of shape.
Tuition Assistance (TA): Change back to not requiring supervisors to sign off on TA. It wasn’t that way until TA funds got low back during CMSAF Cody’s reign. To this day, a single PT fail can automatically stop someone from going to school. That makes no sense, as when that was written, a fail was an auto referral, which is no longer the case. Leaving the educational development to supervisors who are younger and more inexperienced than ever just hurts airmen’s trust in those supervisors, the education system and Air Force as a whole.
Enlisted Evaluation System: They changed the EPRs supposedly because everyone complained they got 5’s. Not likely. What happened was enlisted leaders and commanders who sign EPRs created requirements for decorations and special duties that required firewall 5’s. Now we have a new system, which tossed out Time in Grade/Time in Service [TIS/TIG] points because all those people who were in longer scored higher according to fast burners and people complaining it wasn’t “fair” for people to get more points merely because they were in the AF and job longer.
The long-term effect of that change was the Air Force not valuing experience in the AF and job. This has allowed younger and younger airmen to make rank. The AF on paper thinks this is great having younger awesome troops who can lead longer. The field is suffering because a good portion of these airmen are inexperienced. Their inexperience in the AF and job is showing. Most people with more TIG/TIS were the shop experts. As the force management and High Year of Tenure [HYT] wreaked havoc on the force, most of all those retired on active duty. The AF should return some, not all, points for TIG/TIS and at least give the appearance that they value an airman’s time in service and job.
Enlisted Performance Report (EPR): There was a team who went to AF bases and talked to thousands of airmen at all levels. They suggested moving to narrative form and removing education/volunteering from the EPR. Two years later nothing has happened. There seem to be many officer changes going on, but enlisted ones are left in the lurch. Perhaps CMSAF doesn’t like the changes, hard to know because the only way to know what he’s working on is to try and find out what he says on his DV tour.
There have been some good changes in the EPR arena, but there’s always tweaking that can help. As I type this, most airmen have no idea how to achieve a “Promote Now” or “Must Promote” and it’s out of their supervisor’s hands. That’s a hard system to build trust of airmen in and one which the AF ditched long ago for officers.
Suicides: After every suicide, every base presents a brief to HQ on the suicide. These are usually sanitized and should be shared with all airmen. It’s not enough to train on the same stuff year after year and assume you watch for signs and tell someone to call a number. They need hands-on, and they need to train on getting a text of someone saying goodbye. Called security forces, taking them to the emergency room, the aftercare, etc. Point being, these are very complex issues, like the subject of suicides is calculus and they are training airmen in basic math.
In 2019, there is still no trust that a mental health appointment won’t hurt careers. Why? Because supervisors can hurt you with things like lower EPRs or moving you to a flight where they treat people like dirt. Being upfront and honest goes much further than painting with a wide brush and telling airmen that nothing will happen to them.
Manning: Before CSAF Welsh left, he said the AF needs 50-60k more airmen and he was right. Too many shops are undermanned. We all know the game. Supposedly a shop is 100% manned at 80%, then people are on leave, deployed, at Professional Military Education [PME], etc., so that 80% on paper is 50% in real life. Guess what, that’s valued in the Air Force! Working in a rank above which they pay you is valued in the AF. Many award winners up to 12AOY won with bullets tooting the horn of being undermanned. Many articles are written and leaders brag about shops achieving X despite being manned at 50%. There is nothing fun about being 50% manned. This should not be valued; it should be fixed.
Despite these shops being manned so low, the base and leaders still want 100% from them. Guess what, you don’t get 100% from 50% and over time you wear these people out. This is what’s been happening for the last decade. Fix the manning, we need probably 380k airmen now to do all the work that’s required.
Deployments: Change them back to 90-day deployments and remove all the 6-12-month deployments. Get rid of the Joint Expeditionary Taskings [JET], formerly in lieu of [ILO] deployments. Deployments are critical to the mission, but superfluous deployments are driving the AF into the ground.
First Term Airmen Course (FTAC): Is it really achieving much? Why not get these airmen into their shops with their supervisors sooner. Start building that relationship sooner instead of airmen sitting for weeks inundated with briefs and tasking. There was a time before FTAC and someone should look at getting back to it.
Punishment: The culture in the AF is to punish enlisted and they are excelling at it. Supervisors, especially young ones today, would rather do paperwork than train airmen. We all are told enlisted can bounce back, whereas officers can’t. Try bouncing back from a Letter of Reprimand or Article 15 today; good luck! So much petty paperwork, we see it all the time.
Chain of commands: they used to help and protect, now they are indifferent and will be the first to throw you under the bus. So many issues stem from the chain of commands either doing things to make things harder or being more concerned with their own careers. Like the mold, things are known for years and justified by the chain. The overall toxic system is making otherwise good people turn bad. Then they make excuses or turn it on the airmen and blame them.
If airmen question things they are not received well, they are received as not being a team player or insubordinate. Chains hate social media which is ironic as their airmen are on social media, so they are basically hating their airmen. Perhaps the truth is that social media is taking better care of them and getting better answers then them.
Supervisors seem to never grasp issues and dismiss many airmen complaints as whines. Later, when leaders hear the complaints, they realize there was merit and things get fixed. It is really a sad state of affairs. Holding officers and or commanders accountable would be a nice change, to address the “different spanks for different ranks” mantra that seems to hold so true.
Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC): Has hurt airmen for decades and never seems to improve. Whether it’s the bases screwing things up or AFPC, there always seems to be some program that goes wrong. People are not paid, codes not inputted right, more and more need for supplemental promotions that have nothing to do with deployments.
MyPers [the Air Force official online source for personnel policy, information and day-to-day transactions] is garbage and everything is buried where airmen can’t find it and Military Personnel Flights (MPFs) can’t understand it. It’s so bad they couldn’t even kick airmen out without screwing that up for many on the way out. There needs to be better support from AFPC who seem to care more about leaders than airmen.
Morale: Only applies to officers and aircrew. Apparently, only flight duty qualifies for morale patches, leather jackets, scarves along with “heritage” bars. Former leaders didn’t allow morale on Airman Battle Uniforms (ABUs) and now CSAF Goldfein isn’t allowing morale on Operational Camouflage Pattern [OCPs]. Not approving ball caps shows how out of touch leadership really is. Morale plays a part in job satisfaction. Rules for the sake of rules is asinine. Just as pilots couldn’t roll up their sleeves for decades, the Air Force makes the easy hard, for no apparent reason.
Climate: The AF needs to do climate surveys with instant results. Waiting for a year is too long and does not help airmen, commanders or families. The way they have been handled in the last decade has shown airmen the Air Force literally doesn’t care about them or their families. Airmen have no trust in climate surveys and that needs to change.
Heritage: Things change at the whim of every new CSAF. There are far too many changes too fast. Too many Air Force airmen running around saying “Hooah.” Then there’s the CSAF-created “Airman’s Creed” with its leaving no airmen behind, while the AF sits at almost 80 suicides. Stop changing stuff every two seconds! An ever-changing Air Force gathers no heritage.
Job Performance: There’s a promotion culture and focus on non-job performance. This has been caused by the chain who value fluff over mission. They have falsely stated that all airmen are outstanding therefore one must look to non-job to decide who is the best. That’s not right, as many people are not outstanding.
Many SNCOs, especially Chiefs, push airmen to get out of their comfort zone which translates to them leaving their work centers to work on getting themselves promoted while the already undermanned shops absorb their absence then only get the Promote EPRs. There is no value on job performance and there’s an over-focus on awards. Airmen should be encouraged to be the best in their job and stay in the work center, especially as junior airmen, before becoming a careerist like many of their supervisors are.
Even today, look around, are the Promote Now and Must Promotes the best in their jobs? Is the promotion system promoting the best in job performance, or can one simply get a Promote and make up the point difference by testing well, thus making it just as important to test well than perform well? This is on top of the toxic chains constant desire for them to look well as they give out their look sharp and diamond sharp awards to coin and wood sharks. There is still a long way to go to get the system focused on job performance, perhaps when education and volunteering come off the EPR that will improve.
Awards: Just as “appearance over performance” has thrived, awards are the end all be all. They’ll help you promote. First, you best your peer, then that award gets you a Promote Now. That gets you in the running for a better chance at promotion. Look at Promote Now and Must Promotes selected, it’s a sure thing.
Awards are pushed starting in Basic Military Training. It then continues at tech school and finally once they arrive at their base. That’s how careerism happens. Someone in a rank focused on doing things a few ranks ahead which sound great on paper but can hurt airmen and families as it takes time. An example would be an airman focused on getting a Community College of the Air Force [CCAF] degree which is really only required to make SMSgt. They push for it to make Below the Zone (BTZ) and spend countless hours away from family, and it wasn’t even a requirement.
This is when suggestions become requirements. The focus is on individual awards, not much value in team awards. Way too many awards and every year they make a new award to honor a general. The award focus is pushed by chains and even commands. Many supervisors will justify this and are blind to the creep.
Leave: The Air Force Instruction allows supervisors to deny leave. Many think it must be the commander, but that’s not the case. So, you have all these inexperienced chains and supervisors who create science projects to make themselves feel good at the detriment to their airman. Toxic chains will justify a leave checklist which is not acceptable.
Many commanders brag on not taking leave; it’s a badge of honor for them to not take it. I literally had a commander do just that, he was proud he didn’t take leave. Further proof is CSAF directing his generals to take leave recently. The AF loves to drive people in the ground, and it needs to stop. Leave should be encouraged and made as easy as possible. Apparently, the CMSAF is working to adjust bereavement leave but he’s been talking about it for two years, just like moving to one PT test a year, so who knows what will actually happen.
Sincerely, Enlisted Airmen
A Path Forward
As you can read above, passions run hot on this topic. The bottom line is that active-duty airmen in the United States Air Force are finding life so difficult, they would rather contemplate suicide.
Even the enlisted at Air Force amn/nco/snco admit that “We have great AF leaders in CMSAF Wright and CSAF Goldfein, but they got dealt a bad hand from the folks before them who drove the AF into the ground with the lowest manning in AF history, to include being down 4,000 maintainers and 2,000 pilots.”
A Special Place in My Heart for the USAF
As a former Air Force noncommissioned officer, I have a very special place in my heart for the greatest and most lethal air force on the planet. However, having been out for over 10 years I can see that there are very real morale issues that may be contributing to the skyrocketing suicide rate.
It’s also clear that the enlisted ranks, who make up the bulk of the Air Force, have very strong opinions on how to begin to fix some of these persisting morale issues.
A couple of years ago, I gave a speech to the cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy’s National Character and Leadership Symposium (NCLS) alongside Simon Sinek. Had I known about some of these issues, I might have tweaked my message to these young leaders who would go on to bases around the country.
Hopefully, commanders will value the input of the average airmen, who want nothing more than to love their job, complete the mission and prepare for their future.
As for my friend Joe, he killed himself because he couldn’t see any clear path out of his predicament. He felt trapped and hopeless and couldn’t understand that when the dust settled after his crime, it would be something that he could put behind him.
I still get choked up thinking about the level of despair he must have felt to commit suicide and how we and the Air Force failed him and his family.
We might not be able to stop all Air Force suicides, but when commanders and enlisted personnel work together to fix morale issues, we can make huge progress together.
If you need to reach out, don’t hesitate to call the Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
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