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Suicide is the symptom.




I want to preface this article by saying 'I am just an F-16 crew chief.' I do not have any medical training and all of these opinions are just that, opinions. I believe we have a suicide problem in the Air Force, and in aircraft maintenance in particular. Part of the problem is data is very hard to come by.  There is some data, and it even goes so far as to break down the determined method. However, the data is meta-data at best and doesn't explain all the nuances of each situation.
Reprint courtesy of Air Force Magazine

But the data to the right here is quite alarming. Almost half of all deaths [69 of 151] in the Air Force from August 2016 to August 2017 was caused by a self-inflicted injury. [Raise your hand if you just learned that half of the people that die in the Air Force committed suicide]

What prompted me to write about this subject now is that there have been two suicides in the same Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base in the last month. I don't have any details on the motivation for those events and I'm certainly not going to speculate. However, any time there is a suicide in the aircraft maintenance community it affects me; even more so in one of these recent cases. I feel a myriad of emotions: frustrated, concerned, despondent, and helpless.

I served 20 years in the Air Force, including the year captured in the stat. I had no idea suicides accounted for half the deaths. I mean, just watching the aircraft maintenance environment over the years made me tell my children in no uncertain terms that they would be making a grave mistake joining the Air Force. Knowing what I know now, I believe it even more.

This brings me to my point: We have a suicide problem.

While the problem isn't exclusive to aircraft maintenance that is the culture I'm going to focus on for a few reasons. For one, I'm a maintainer. Second, both suicides in the last month at Holloman were aircraft maintainers, the latter an Airman that I worked with.

While I was at Holloman from about 2016 through 2017 the 54th AMXS was averaging one suicide every 6 months. We also had at least one attempt that was more than just talking about it. This was an actual, violent episode that left the Airman severely disabled. It's important to note that that wasn't the whole base, just one squadron. And actually, in the case of two of the suicides it was the same AMU.

At the time I knew 2 per year was bad, but doing some quick crew chief math [read: I'm bad at math] if every base was averaging 2 per year, and there are 94 active duty bases that comes to 188 suicides per year. Since there were only 69 suicides in that same period, Holloman is clearly an outlier.

So, Holloman is worse than the Air Force average, but how is the Air Force average? Let's have a look.

Reprint courtesy of Air Force Magazine
It's interesting to note that the Air Force trended with the national average for suicide, and in 1999 was much better. However, in 2014 it went up sharply and there it stayed through at least 2017 [the last year of data].

So, what happened in 2014? Well lots of things really. But mainly it was the implementation of mandatory bull-shit PME, and a 40,000 cut to personnel.

In my research to properly answer this question I found this article by Mike Benitez where he shows remarkable insight into the reality of aircraft maintenance. I recommend you read his article in its entirety. However, if you don't, I've quoted a few salient points here:

"The Air Force cut 40,000 personnel, including 9,000 experienced aircraft maintainers — despite the fact that aircraft maintenance required per-flight hour had risen 62 percent since 1991. This marked the beginning of a startling disconnect between aircraft maintenance and flight operations that has been seen in virtually every fighter squadron over the past decade. With fewer people, even maximum efforts by aircraft maintenance squadrons to fill a flying schedule fell below the minimum requirement for flying squadrons to sustain readiness. This led to over-worked aircraft maintenance squadrons, resulting in burned-out and fed-up aircraft maintainers."

Yup. [It's worth noting that 1/4 of all the people cut were maintainers]

"When it comes to aircraft, the Air Force is in an efficiency paradox. It has too many types of aircraft to maintain but too few planes to cut anything, and is too slow at replacing an aging fleet. Since 1991, the service has been on a fleet recapitalization schedule that is going to take over 100 years. The Combat Air Forces Reduction Plan tried to address this in 2010 when it slashed 246 older fighter jets from the inventory to fund a smaller, more capable force. However, reducing the number of fighters increased the burden on each one remaining. This is what drives operations tempo — one of the driving reasons for poor retention."

Yup.

Look I can keep quoting his article, but it's so good I recommend you read the entire series yourself. It will help show how the services [and the Air Force in particular] painted themselves into a corner with which there isn't an obvious way out of.

Moreover, last I checked we are 1,300 fighter pilots short of what we need. Which means we can't stop flying, especially in pilot training programs.

I've already gone over ad nauseum how this resource starvation breeds yes men and careerists, I'm not going to rehash those points.

What we are seeing now, with these alarming upticks in suicides is the beginning of the breaking point for aircraft maintenance. Gone are the days where the most patriotic will brag on social media 'Our guys will get it done. We don't know the definition of failure in aircraft maintenance.'

The Air Force as a collective institution has been blind and deaf to the effects their decisions are making at the lowest levels in aircraft maintenance.

Here's a test for the maintenance readers: Are you surprised people feel so hopeless that they are ending their lives?

I am alarmed at how frequent the suicides and attempts are becoming, but I am not surprised it is happening.

So, what can be done about it? Who thinks we need some resilience training?

Maybe. But probably not.
Graphic courtesy of my wife

Take a look at this graphic to the right. It's a bit crude but it's the best way to explain my point.

Everyone has a different threshold for stress, and really that tolerance ebbs and flows a bit. But the important thing to understand is everyone has a different breaking point. The point of resiliency training is an attempt to train Airmen to increase their threshold. Resiliency on the graph is represented by the orange horizontal line. That's where people will buckle under their combined stress load. Now what that break looks like will be very different from person to person. If someone is a few months away from separating, their breaking point might be the 'I have zero fucks to give' mentality. Or, perhaps some people's breaking point might be thoughts of self-harm. Regardless, when all the stresses of life pile up and exceed someone's tolerance it gets bad. The Air Force focuses on increasing your tolerance. I think that is just a fraction of what the Air Force could do to curb suicides.

The blue bars represent cumulative stress. I've broken it into three categories between Home Stress (Bottom Dark Blue) [relationship, kids, or even loneliness], Life Stress (Middle Blue) [health, free-time, money] and Work Stress (Top Light Blue) [work hours, performance, treatment].

Some people come to work with quite a bit of home and life stress. Kind of represented by the first bar. But they arrive at work and work stress is also through the roof. The person feels trapped, hopeless. They've exceeded their resilience. Maybe their work stress is feeding their Home Stress. Maybe the constant 12+ hours, weekend duty schedules [at one time I had 3 7 levels so every 3rd weekend they were on the duty] is alienating their spouse. Or the extended shifts are taking away their gym time, so they failed a PT test.

However, look at the two bars on the right. Both have the same amount of home and life stress. But one has reduced work stress. And because of that reduced stress, they are keeping it together.

We can stop suicides. It takes people of moral courage to place the emotional well-being of their subordinates above their own career.

Look, I'm not saying Airmen don't mismanage their lives. That they aren't responsible for their Home and Life Stress. I'm not saying that.

What I'm saying: As a leader in the Air Force, you are responsible for the stress you subject your people to. When I said above I had 3 7 levels for weekend duty? I put myself and the other section chiefs on weekend duty as the 7 levels. It wasn't the most popular decision with the other section chiefs [Except for Kenny Brooks my ride or die assistant], but the 7 levels went from weekend duty every 3 weeks to every 2 months. We all have the power to turn off stupid, stressful things. Because what you don't turn off, could be the straw that breaks the camel's back and sends one of your Airmen over the edge. And while you'll find a million reasons that suicide was his decision and not your fault, I'm telling you now if you didn't make it your mission to remove stress from your people in a small way you share the blame.

I've seen Airmen lose a 244 for a piece of CTK equipment and spend 12 hours looking for it because it was a 'lost tool.' We have brought in entire AMUs because the hangar floors are dirty. We have been reckless with people's sleep to the point of risking their lives for training missions. When we do these things. These petty, arbitrary, and worthless things; we destroy our people's faith in their leadership and in their unit. They feel hopeless. And because they are in the military, they feel trapped.

It is time. In fact, it is long past fucking time. The world of aircraft maintenance is struggling. Instead of placing more burden on them, it's time every leader at every level uses their authority to remove obstacles and distractions.

These are people's children. Some are barely out of high school. When a parent hands their child to the Air Force, they trust the Air Force to look out for them. To take care of them. How many maintainers in the service right now would want their son or daughter to join the Air Force? Not a fucking one.

I'm not perfect, as anyone that has worked for me can attest. I have said some terrible things, and I've made some people very stressed out. I wish someone had sat me down and explained all of this about 16 years ago. The best I could do is figure it out eventually and serve my people the best I could. I believe by sheer luck I never had someone kill themselves under my supervision. I honestly don't know how I would reconcile that event against my behavior.

There's an old adage that when someone joins the military they write a blank check to the United States Government for any amount up to including their life. While that's true, most people in non-kinetic occupations don't expect to die in the course of, or as a result of, their daily duties.

When someone in combat dies it's usually sudden and violent, I compare it to a terrible car accident. One minute they are alive, the next they have passed.

What we are seeing in aircraft maintenance is the slow erosion of our people's psyche. They are being used up over years and years. Until eventually some of them can't give anymore and they die. This is like watching someone die of a slow, wasting disease.

I get we all swore an oath to lay down our life for our country. But sometimes we don't have to die.

Every effort, by every person should be to support maintenance and get them healthy again. Or else there will be more suicides, and I for one cannot stand to bear another.

Join us on our Facebook page to contribute to the discussion so we can all understand what it is like in maintenance in today's Air Force.

Note: In the course of writing this article I learned there were two suicides at Luke Air Force Base since the New Years, and 2 additional suicide attempts at Holloman since the most recent suicide.

Second note: 1 day after writing the last note I learned there was a 3rd suicide at Holloman.


Comments

  1. I cant help but feel that my disdain for the officer corp is justified with these horrors that face the aircraft mxs community. Why give a shit about the people under you if all they are is a stepping stone in your own career? They essentially become disposable since, once the officer moves up in rank and duty, they will rarely if ever see or deal with them again unless they are trouble makers...

    But thats just my opinion.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Careerists. Not necessarily officers.

      People who are solely focused on their individual success.

      I’ve known lots of great officers. They weren’t careerists.

      I don’t want this article to make people feel more hopeless. I want it to inspire people to fight for their people.

      Delete
  2. My son is in the unit at Holloman where the two suicides occurred. These were his friends. He is hurting, the unit is hurting and they have no idea why they happened? This scares me for my child. I have 2 boys in the military and I am baffled at the number of suicides they have both had to endure. I also work in mental health. I don't believe mental health is enough of a priority for the military. All of these men and woman are hurting. When is the stigma of mental health going to go away? I pray for all of them.

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    Replies
    1. I served in the AF for over 20 years and there were many suicides over that time. A few I knew, most were just a name and rank in a briefing or email. I lost my son, also served in AF, to suicide a few years ago. We never saw a note or a reason he did it, but I absolutely believe part of the reason is lack mental health care and the stigma that seeking help will ruin a career. While it may not truly be the case any longer, the stigma or feelings amongst the force is that it will adversely affect their career if they have aa mental health incident. So to try and preserve their career, the tell no one and they don't get the help they so badly need. High ops tempo and reduction in force will definitely create more stress. Some of that stress will inevitably make it home with the Airman. Military life is hard on families and many marriages fail. They fail for a myriad of reasons, but taking stress from work and adding to the mix will only make it worse. High ops tempo will also cause fatigue and lapses at work, no matter how diligent the maintainer is. 1 lapse at the wrong time and their world can come crashing down. Suddenly that good guy is ostracized by everyone in his unit or worse, the AF comes looking for someone to blame for an accident, fatal or not. When a maintainer is held responsible for an incident, no matter the true cause, the rest of the maintainer world is put on notice and stress levels go up. Reduce the stress, reduce the workloads and reduce the tempo. How? Increase manning in maintenance career fields, supervisors take better care of your troops, increase modernization of the fleet (while also increase the workforce or face more of the same results).

      Delete
  3. From my time in, I've noticed the slow decline in overall moral and health of the mx core started shifting when the great re-org occurred. When mxers were ripped from the FS/AMU to an AMXS. To a Cc that barely knows of their existence, unless the are in trouble. If the AF doesn't seriously un-fuck the situation, it will only get worse. Abolish amxs's. Stop adding more resiliency training. It is ineffective.

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  4. Thank you for helping me understand better, what my husband has been trying to tell me.

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  5. I sought help at the Holloman mental health clinic a little over 2 years ago. They scheduled an appointment over a month away. I requested an off base referral to be seen in a timely manner which was denied. I hope with all my heart they have a better system in place now.

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    Replies
    1. In my experience, you can usually get an appointment within a week or two unless it's the holidays. Not seeking help in the first place is more likely whether it be from a friend or even just going to the ER

      Delete
  6. This is heartbreaking! I know that one particular airman, my airman sons best friend was one who lost his life to this epidemic at Holloman. I've never hear my even keel son be so distraught or frustrated. And he loves his job, and even loved where he lived, up until recent tragedies. No young/or older man/woman, no matter how strong minded, should have to deal with so much heartache. Unnecessary heartache! SOMETHING NEEDS TO BE DONE! Find out WHY this is happening!! And do something about it! We can talk about it and talk about what needs done, but acting on it is what's going to start things in the right direction. We need our military mentally & physically healthy.
    This article needs to get to someone in the Whitehouse. Saaaayyy....Trump?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Another maintenance guyFebruary 6, 2019 at 7:09 AM

    Been in over 15 years and I've lost 5 friends/coworkers to suicide in maintenance to include my best friend of 13 years. This is a real epidemic that needs more attention that runs far deeper into the culture of MX. The Air Force needs to step back and stop working our guys to death. We have also entered the time of a one mistake career. One small mistake will follow you for the rest or your career. This new promotion statement bullshit hasn't done anything but pit tsgts against one another to make rank resulting in the lesser ranks feeling the strain.

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  8. Example, one that I experienced:

    We launch jets, commander briefs us on a members suicide, we catch jets and continue as if all is normal. Service member was very close to all of us, and gave zero indication.

    Commander loses one of his pilots in a tragic accident, we take a knee for 2 1/2 weeks.

    Moral: a complete disregard for the enlisted. Until they figure out people come first, and not the mission, these terrible statistics will continue to grow across all services.

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  9. I was at Robins in 2004 when there were 3 suicides and a double homicide in my AMXS/MXS community. Too much work, not enough people. Deadlines and missions. Those have and always will be the priorities. Never the people (maintainers). But what about when those missions are saving lives? Maintainers want to do the right thing, and serve their country and push themselves to the breaking point. It’s a problem, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better.

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  10. I am amazed and impressed with the honesty and ability to articulate so well the problem we face!! Thank you to the author of the article, whose name I cannot find. I am a community member who is involved with Holloman. Main Gate United and our community wants to be part of the solution! I have known mothers of sons who serve in the military that battle the same demons and as stated above, they will not access mental health support for they know it will ruin their careers.. Perhaps if we can create a system off base without a billing mechanism so confidentiality can be guaranteed My friends son saw a counselor in town and paid cash so there was no record accessed by his military unit. This and his parent who stayed in touch daily is what may have saved his life. We understand, these young men/women may not have a parent nearby, but to be sure they can have a friend here in Alamogordo! We at Main Gate United will be reaching out - feel free to contact us! Again thank you for your brave and honest assessment!

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  11. I was in honor guard so burying a fellow brother or sister is not uncommon. Exactly one month before I received my honorable a dear colleague decided to take his own life. My bud wasn't alone there were several deaths in my squadron and more in others. Some maintenance some not. Some of which unfortunately could have been prevented. That was all at one base then you hear very similar stories about other bases. It takes a high school diploma to fix the planes on the hottest and coldest place on earth the flightline but, a college degree to break them while seeing the world. Maintenance in particular gets to see all this cheer around them while we are covered in something that shouldn't be put on anything besides an airplane along with blood and sweat. Location and work load suck to someone everywhere but, what in my opinion sucked more was the incompetence and accountability along with favoritism. If you truly believe there isn't a problem with those three things you may be part of the extra stress. It's ok it's never too late to help. Helping isn't being up someone's ass all the time either. Simply try to understand in each individual circumstance leave the bureaucracy out of it. Be a human. Be more flexible. For an example; if you see someone being an alcoholic instead of sending them straight to the hospital making them feel like it's wrong to get help because you will be shunned. Instead try something like seeing why and if they won't talk to you see if maybe they want to go out for a drink. Woah but, fraternizing isn't allowed!!! I understand this, I'm not saying help by contributing to the drinking problem. Just go to their place of comfort and show them that you care. You must be genuine the, "I'm just here because it's my job." Even if you say otherwise is obvious. It could be for a lot of different things not just alcoholism. A dorm rat that just plays video games see if they want to play video games even if you don't understand it see, maybe you know someone that also does. Just find a way to connect and not judge. The doctors aren't always right or sometimes adds to the stress. Another thing that may help is stop being shady. Meaning be straight up if the person is in trouble. You may not be able to say exactly what or why but, give some context. It may be a slap on the wrist or career ending not, "well we don't know". The amount of stress for some is unbearable. Not knowing and a lot is up for discretion as to how severe the punishment may be. "shall be punished as a court-martial may direct." Is on many ucmj codes. As a person in charge of others what happens is they see that and button up. Technically you don't have to say anything. Then we see that it's better to lie and get away with it than to express any bits of getting help and being in trouble. We may be able to get help or lose your career, home, friends/family it really could go either way. It is against the rules to have reprisals as far as paperwork or actions in some cases. Unfortunately it isn't the actions what some think after an incident. People are naturally curious and in many cases find out either by facts or spreading rumors. I know you aren't supposed to bully but, it happens. People in maintenance like other tight knit groups get to know each other better than most jobs. Which makes it difficult to choose either keep quiet and not get bullied or be alone. You aren't really alone it just feels that way because, the words of those closest to you cut the deepest. There is no definitive answer just sharing my opinion along with possible solutions.

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  12. This is such a poignant article and addresses issues that affect all flight-liners in some capacity. Speaking from personal experience, these symptoms are very real. Mine were only exacerbated by the contributing epidemic of MST. This is something that haunts me to this day. Being lower ranking than my offender I was "generously" offered a general under honorable separation while this predator still thrives. Now instead of being prideful of my service, I only speak of it tenuously and delicately attempt to hide my shame. I loved my job. I loved serving my country. I loved working on jets and was damn good at it. But because of the pressures applied by the powers at be, my life will never be the same. It has been over seven years and I am still struggling to save my own life. I am deeply saddened to learn that I was not just an outlier as I was lead to believe. I pray for the health of my fellow airmen and for the healing of this deeply corrupt system.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I am an active duty mortuary technician, and until I began doing this job about 6 years ago...I had no idea how many suicides we had year after year. Yea, 22 pushes the veteran numbers but the active duty military isn't much of an agenda outside the services themselves. I don't think we can be trained to be resilient to dwindle suicides down. I've seen all ranks, all jobs, all walks of life commit suicide in the Air Force. Some of them had indicators, most didn't. I can't even begin to determine a true way to curb suicide, besides stopping this "do more with less" rhetoric. Look at the one common denominator that has our suicide numbers climbing year after year compared to 20-30 years ago when the forces were fatter, but also not involved in a major conflict. Briefing a family that their "hero" took his/her own life and what the Air Force is going to provide during this time is truly a heart breaking duty but I am grateful to ensure our brothers and sisters families are taken care of.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Unfortunately I've taken the calls for many members who tried/were successful in taking their lives.
    Recently we had a 19 y/o airman who took his life in a very public way. He'd been in the service not even a year. Why? No clue. I can't imagine what he was feeling for him to feel that this was the only way out. So in the weeks following the incident what happened? Nothing at all. Our CCC was too busy pointing out dress and appearance violations w/passive aggressiveness rather than addressing our Airman as a whole and letting them know that their Senior Enlisted is there for them. I don't want to get into specifics but the manner in which this young Airman took his life was very public. My heart goes out to the families that now have to recover from these tragedies. Sadly, it took me years to get over my personal experience with the suicide of a loved one especially since I witnessed it. It seems like our Senior Enlisted, tops of our chain, are more focusing on BS with simple fixes than acknowledging the very clear and present issue we have with our Airman. As sad as I was to leave my troops, I was glad to not have to deal with spineless Senior Enlisted anymore. Regardless, active duty or not, my guys know they can come to me whenever they need it.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Read this bullshit: https://www.reddit.com/r/AirForce/comments/bf85a0/i_had_my_retirement_ceremony_today_and_thanks_for/?sort=new

    ReplyDelete

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