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Air Force takes steps against suicides

(U.S. Air Force graphic/Norma Morgan)

(U.S. Air Force graphic/Norma Morgan)

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- The Air Force vice chief of staff testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee June 22 to address steps the service is taking to stem the rising suicide numbers.

Gen. Carrol H. "Howie" Chandler, in testimony alongside the other service vice chiefs and the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, noted that the Air Force officials have been addressing the problem with their suicide prevention program and total force resiliency program.

Additionally, General Chandler said the service is re-emphasizing the wingman culture.

"The Air Force initiated the total force resiliency program in February of this year to holistically address the root causes of suicide," the general said. "The Air Force program reflects a broad-based approach to supporting Airmen and their families, recognizing that physical, mental and emotional health are critical to quality of life and readiness of the force."

The Airman Resiliency Program is a three-tier program, with different intensity approaches at each level, said Lt. Col. Catherine A. Bobenrieth, the chief of the mental health branch at the Air Force Medical Operations Agency, San Antonio.

Tier one targets and tracks Airmen who have been exposed to potentially traumatic events during deployment, she said. Airmen will undergo team debriefings, education and reintegration activities.

Tier two addresses groups identified as higher-than-average risk that may need a targeted training or intervention, Colonel Bobenrieth said. It includes pre- and post-deployment training.

Tier three is available to all Airmen, and features voluntary services available on bases through the Airman and Family Readiness centers and chapel services, she said. It also includes computer-based suicide prevention training.

General Chandler noted in his testimony that the Air Force approach is multi-faceted.

"Airman resiliency and the Air Force Suicide Prevention Program are complementary efforts that rely on leadership engagement, immediate family involvement and wingman support as key components, he said.

"There is no substitute for Airmen knowing their subordinates and knowing coworkers well enough to recognize changes in attitude, behavior and personality, and then intervene when something is not right," he said.

"In May, the Air Force chief of staff directed a service-wide 'Wingman Day' to reinforce the significance and role of every Airman as mutually supportive, critical components in suicide prevention and resilience," General Chandler said.

Wingman Stand Down 2010 addressed suicides and motor vehicle fatalities. The Air Force's top commissioned and enlisted Airmen addressed the issue of suicides in a memorandum they released announcing the stand down.

"The loss of any Airman is a concern for us all, and demands our renewed and steady focus on preventing these tragedies," said Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Roy in their joint memorandum. "We must redouble our efforts to identify those at risk for suicide and get them the support that they need to regain hope and balance in their lives."

General Chandler said suicides affect Airmen from throughout all Air Force specialty codes and it takes Airmen up and down the chain to tackle this problem.

"While no segment of the Air Force is immune to suicide, there are known high-risk populations and known common risk factors, like relationship problems, legal issues, financial troubles, and history of mental health diagnosis," General Chandler said. "The Air Force recognizes suicide as a public health concern that requires active and persistent involvement from commanders, supervisors, and peers, also referred to as wingmen, at all levels of the organization."

Colonel Bobenrieth said the goal of Air Force officials is to let all Airmen know there's help available and to get folks who need help in touch with people and programs that can help.

"A suicide is the terrible loss of a promising life," Colonel Bobenrieth said. "It is very disruptive to the lives of family and friends, and the entire Air Force community.

"And many of them are preventable," the colonel said.

As of June 22, there have been 27 suicides in the Air Force for calendar 2010.

At the Wingman Stand Down, Airmen received "ACE" cards and identified who their wingman will be on cards each will carry, according to Colonel Bobenrieth.

ACE stands for ask-care-escort:

- Ask your wingman -- directly asking a distressed wingman if he or she is having thoughts of killing him or herself.
- Care for your wingman -- take control of the situation; listen to a wingman and understand his or her situation; remove any items that can cause harm.
- Escort your wingman -- never leave your wingman alone; escort him or her to someone in the chain of command, a mental health care provider, a chaplain, or a medical care provider; call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a counselor.

A recent American Forces Press Service story featured how a widow is dealing with her husband's suicide.

Kim Ruocco's husband, Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco, committed suicide Feb. 6, 2005, after battling depression. She stressed the importance of ACE in a June 11 story titled "Survivor shares story to combat troop suicides."

"I tell the troops to practice ACE - ask, care, escort," she said. "You can never leave a person who is in that much pain alone. You can't say, 'I'll call you tomorrow.' Grab their arm and escort them to help."

Many victims of suicide communicated their intentions in advance, Colonel Bobenrieth said.

The colonel said thoughts of suicide generally manifest themselves in some form.

There are several warning signs Airmen should be aware of if their wingman exhibits them, she said.

They include:
- Unusual or sudden changes in behavior
- Decreased work performance
- Disciplinary problems
- Financial problems
- Accidents or deaths of loved ones
- Relationship difficulties at work and at home
- Spouse and/or child abuse
- Alcohol or drug misuse
- Social isolation
- Moodiness or irritability
- Depression, feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of suicide.

There are positive actions people can take to address someone's suicidal behavior, Colonel Bobenrieth said.

"There are several protective factors," the colonel said. "They include having close relationships with family, friends and your battle buddy or wingman, maintaining a social support network, and having an ongoing relationship with health and mental health care providers.

"It's also important to have an understanding of coping and problem-solving skills, and reasons for living," the colonel said. "Two other important protective factors are cultural and religious beliefs that value life and discourage suicide."

To assist Airmen with information about dealing with suicide, Colonel Bobenrieth pointed out the Air Force's suicide prevention website at http://www.af.mil/suicideprevention.asp. The site features a variety of tools and links to sites about dealing with suicide.

"This is an important website to have handy," Colonel Bobenrieth said. "You never know when you might need it."

The Senate Armed Services committee hearing also addressed traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Often called "invisible wounds of war," the testimony by the witnesses noted that the issues are inextricably linked.
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