Air Force suicides alarming

By Pam Zubeck: The Colordao Springs Gazzette

COLORADO SPRINGS — A recent spike in Air Force suicides — 10 in September — has leaders scrambling to find the cause after launching prevention programs this year because of a gradual rise.

“This rash has scared the hell out of us,” Air Force Secretary James Roche said last week, conceding that officials are baffled. “We don’t know. We just don’t know.”

The issue is a concern for bases across the country, including personnel at Cannon Air Force Base.

“Despite 10 suicide attempts in 2004, none have been successful thanks to the preventative programs in place at Cannon,” said Capt. Andrea Leitheiser, chief psychologist for Cannon’s 27th Fighter Wing Medical Group.
Leitheiser said Cannon takes a proactive role in suicide awareness and prevention.

“Twice a year we are mandated to give an Air Force suicide brief to all airmen … In addition to this brief, the Cannon Life Skills Center provides suicide awareness and prevention briefs to squadrons, shops and other organizations when commanders request them,” she said.

Cannon also has a program in place that each spring extensively trains two people in each squadron — 40 in all — on suicide prevention, Leitheiser said.
“We realize this is not only a medical responsibility, but most importantly a community one,” said Col. John Posner, Cannon’s commander.

“Looking after one another is the best preventative action we can take. “

Secretary Roche, at the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., last week for a meeting with four-star generals, said suicide has been a persistent problem for the Air Force. It is on pace to double last year’s suicide rate. After recognizing the pattern this year, the Air Force adopted information and training campaigns to identify people in distress.

Although the Air Force historically has reported rates 25 percent lower than other branches, this year’s figures put them on a par with or ahead of the Army and Navy, Roche said.

Roche said the September suicides involved white men, most 19 to 24. None involved airmen sent to Iraq or Afghanistan or those who have returned.

“Our kids are killing themselves at a greater rate than the insurgents are killing our kids,” he said.

Roche said he and Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper told generals last week to “bring attention to it.” Each major command has been told to adopt prevention programs or take steps they deem effective.

The Air Force also will examine “what happens when we send leaders overseas as part of the expeditionary force, and they’re filled in with leaders who think they’re only there temporarily. They may not realize they have a tougher burden because they’ve got to catch up on how the young people think and behave.”

Roche said the service will study what stress factors are contributing to the trend.

“We’re bringing chaplains in, doctors in, personnel people. They’re going at it,” Roche said.

Civilian experts also might be consulted “to make sure we haven’t missed anything.”

Roche likened the response to the push for solutions to the sexual assault scandal, which broke in early 2003 after female cadets said the academy had ignored their sexual assault reports.

The claims prompted several investigations, the ouster of academy leaders and changes in how cadets live, train and are expected to behave.

They also triggered closer monitoring of cadet attitudes. In the first annual cadet survey, in August 2003, one in five male cadets said women don’t belong at the academy.

In a voluntary poll given in March, the results were the same. In the annual survey given in August 2004, however, a diminishing percentage say women don’t belong.

Roche said the results, although a step in the right direction, don’t indicate that problems are solved.

Clovis News Journal staff writer David Irvin contributed to this report.