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Smoke doesn't always mean fire Part I

Air Force "Deep Dive" on Suicides Lands in the Shallow End

Photo courtesy of Technical Sergeant Brian Martin


A year ago this week I wrote an article about what I believed was an impending and escalating suicide problem afflicting the Air Force. I was using my own military service, as well as information from my colleagues still serving, to piece together bits of information on suicides. In so doing I noticed a trend. But, before I get started a reminder: I am not an expert on mental health and nothing I say should be interpreted as medical advice.

As I wrote the article, more suicides were happening. I initially believed the issue was local to Holloman Air Force Base. However, as 2019 progressed it was clear this epidemic wasn't the exclusive domain of the 54th Fighter Group.

Prior to the Air Force announcing they had a suicide problem, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act[FOIA] request to the SecAF requesting all suicide metadata, to include Air Force Specialty Codes[AFSCs], or "job" data from 2009 to 2019. Three days after my request, the Air Force announced there was a problem.

By law, a FOIA request should have a response within twenty business days. However, agencies can extend the twenty-day period:

"In unusual circumstances as specified in this subparagraph, the time limits prescribed in either clause (i) or clause (ii) of subparagraph (A) may be extended by written notice to the person making such request setting forth the unusual circumstances for such extension and the date on which a determination is expected to be dispatched. No such notice shall specify a date that would result in an extension for more than ten working days, except as provided in clause (ii) of this subparagraph.
(ii) With respect to a request for which a written notice under clause (i) extends the time limits prescribed under clause (i) of subparagraph (A), the agency shall notify the person making the request if the request cannot be processed within the time limit specified in that clause and shall provide the person an opportunity to limit the scope of the request so that it may be processed within that time limit or an opportunity to arrange with the agency an alternative time frame for processing the request or a modified request."

After twenty business days I received no response. I sent multiple email messages that went unanswered. I called the Pentagon FOIA Liason office every week from Mid-August to October. Their response was "the responsible agencies had a backlog." I quoted the FOIA guidance above and they seemed disinterested in providing any statutorily required information. I was not afforded the opportunity to arrange with the agency an alternative time frame for processing the request or to modify my request.

Simply put, my request went into a bureaucratic black hole. By December my real life commitments prevented  my weekly phone calls to the Pentagon requesting updates or a written extension.

On January 24th, 2020, a full 121 business days from the date of my request, I received a response:




You'll notice they provided a link, suggesting it could contain the data. The link leads to a list of suicide studies by year. Looking at the 2017 study it tracks suicides not by AFSC, but rather by service, component and rank "range."


Frankly the data focuses on seemingly random demographics. I can understand how education, ethnicity, or marital status could show some correlation for suicide. But surely AFSC plays at least an equal role if not greater right? Obviously there is an upward trend since 2014, but because it's data for all Air Force active duty personnel we are missing a giant variable when it comes to work stress and culture.


When I submitted the FOIA request I was expecting to see a spike in suicide rates coinciding with the Force Reduction measures of 2014[which is broadly demonstrated to the right]. I surmised that by cutting personnel to the lowest levels in the Air Force's history--coupled with the longest sustained operational commitment--we would see an uptick in suicides year over year.

However, duty station, command climate, ops tempo, and job responsibilities are unique variables that have to be addressed if we are going to solve this problem. While I doubted Air Force leadership's willingness to make the necessary, sweeping changes to address the suicide problem, I [naively] believed they at least had the nuanced data[AFSCs] necessary to understand what was causing the increase in suicides.

I must admit, while I expected the numbers for aircraft maintenance to be terrible, I didn't expect the response to be: "The office of Air Force Surgeon General (AF/SG) and the Air Force Manpower and Personnel (AF/A1) office conducted a search for records responsive to your request however, no records were found. Therefore, a “no records” determination was made. Furthermore, the offices of AF/SG and AF/A1 don’t maintain information on the records you requested."

It's important to note the difference between an exempted FOIA response and a no records response. If the Air Force believed the suicide/AFSC metadata could be exempted from release due to a few specific reasons, they would exempt what they were allowed and state why they were withholding the records. In this case, the Air Force is saying they don't have the data I requested.

At first, I was outraged. Outraged at the idea that the Surgeon General(AF/SG) of the Air Force and the Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower(AF/A1) didn't have this information available. I contacted Air Force Public Affairs for an explanation. My initial thought was negligence and incompetence.

The next day the Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page posted two pictures that showed official Air Force markings:




There's a certain irony that the slides labeled "Deep Dive" are anything but.

Drugs and Alcohol: It is not a new concept that depressed individuals have a higher rate of drug and alcohol abuse. Moreover, the actual metric itself doesn't necessarily give enough information to form an understanding of the problem. It is a comparison between drug use of Airman that attempt suicide, compared to those who died by suicide. However, the framing of the information suggests that the suicide problem is caused by drugs and alcohol. This leads the reader to automatically find fault outside the service.

AFSC: Here, the slide talks about higher amounts of suicide deaths between Aircraft Maintenance and Security Forces, but then caveats the statement that these career fields have larger and younger populations. Most suicide data is framed as a per capita metric. And yet here, the Air Force abandons that metric and only cite raw numbers[without citing the numbers] with quick exceptions. A per capita metric for these career fields would provide the data necessary to encapsulate the severity of the issue.

Airmen Under Investigation: At this point the "Deep Dive" is little more than a self-licking ice cream cone. Young Airmen in Aircraft Maintenance and Security Forces face far more administrative and judicial actions due to the nature of their job, and the culture of the career field. Thus, I wouldn't be surprised if these career fields have increased substance use issues and relationship problems[below].

Gender: More men succeed in killing themselves, more women attempt. Great insight, thanks.

Relationships: It turns out that working endless, high-stress shifts coupled with a constant threat of punishment, and topped with a cycle of depression and self-medication can negatively affect relationships. Who knew?

When you take this "Deep Dive" slide in its entirety it's fairly clear the Air Force is trying to use these metrics, not as tools to solve a problem, rather to leverage the information against the force in an effort to prove suicides are un-fixable.

So how is it that the AF/A1 responded to the FOIA request with "no records" when a PowerPoint is posted days later with official Air Force markings and listing the "HQ AF/A1Z" as the metric owner for suicide rates?

Upon further digging I learned the AF/A1 is Lieutenant General Brian Kelly. If you're not familiar with the name let me help you out.

In 2013 General Kelly, then Colonel, orchestrated the FY14 Force Reduction program.  In 2013 the Air Force decided in all of it's infinite wisdom to abruptly cut 17,000 Active Duty personnel in an attempt to reduce their budget to meet NDAA end strength targets and sequestration budget caps. The critical error in their execution was that they had 5 years to draw the force down; however they instead opted to cut the force all at once. Colonel Kelly was quoted: "And, while aggressive, the plan to reduce the size of the force provides long-term stability beyond (FY15)"

His boss Lt. Gen. Cox continued "The initiatives are part of ongoing military programs designed to maintain a smaller, more streamlined, ready and capable force in the future."

So in FY14 we cut a ton of people, many of whom were maintainers. Unfortunately I don't have the data to prove that. However, I can tell you I was the Acting First Sergeant at the 756th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at the time and maintainers were certainly facing voluntary and involuntary separation options. We lost a lot of excellent maintainers from our ranks. And the 756th weren't the only ones. The Air Force Personnel Center had directed that every airman with certain negative marks would be affected. There was no consideration given for their AFSC.

But not according to Lt. Gen. Kelly. In 2015, then Brigadier General Kelly discussed a program to bring prior service aircraft maintainers back into the Air Force. When asked about the Force Reduction in FY14 Gen Kelly stated: "'The places where we're adding experience are targeted to specific skills[AFSC] and specific grades[ranks] . . . We purposely did it that way. These were career fields that were protected before[Force Reduction], that we already knew we were short of.'"

In my experience, this statement was a complete fabrication. They cut AFSCs indiscriminately in FY14 then went on to pretend like the Force Reduction wasn't a complete mess.

In June 2015 Brigadier General Kelly triumphantly stated that "Volunteering won't help you get promoted anymore." Throughout the Air Force, time and again volunteering and education are the sole discriminators when determining who will be promoted. To believe such rubbish is one thing, but to have such comments published belie someone so out of touch with the reality they are unfit to manage any facet of Force development or manpower. And yet, now we find General Kelly in charge of exactly that as AF/A1.

From what I can tell, Lt. Gen. Kelly is quite capable of being incompetent, dishonest or out-of-touch at any given time.

Which brings me back to the "no records" FOIA response.

Does the Air Force not track the suicide data by AFSC? Clearly not tracking suicides by AFSC would be grossly negligent but might explain the service's flaccid response to the suicide epidemic.

But the PowerPoint above suggests that they do. Is this an instance where AF/A1 dishonesty has been employed? Certainly a career officer who has had a meteoric rise to the highest ranks at the Pentagon (an O-6 in 2014, an O-9 in 2018) has a vested interest in concealing force management mistakes that could have contributed to the current suicide epidemic.

Or perhaps AF/A1 is just out-of-touch with the state of the force. Maybe he thinks it isn't a problem specific to the force itself? I certainly see why he would think that, considering a top DOD expert on military suicides has essentially thrown up his hands as well. Recently,  Dr. Karin Orvis, of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office stated: “I am disheartened that the trends in the military, as in the civilian sector, are not going the desired direction"

Framing the suicide rate in the military against an increase in the civilian sector ignores the seemingly infinite schism between military and civilian experiences. If the Air Force believed this, I'd expect to see an increase in resilience training and a "ride-it-out" mentality; avoiding the necessary adjustments to mission expectations and ops tempo.

I'm no longer on active duty, but has the ops tempo decreased? If it hasn't, odds are AF/A1 hasn't taken the necessary steps to address the suicide problem and they very well could be adhering to a "ride-it-out" mentality.

Recently, Lt. Gen. Kelly stated "Suicide is a difficult national problem without easily identifiable solutions that has the full attention of leadership." It seems the DOD and Air Force messaging is firmly entrenched in the idea that the Air Force's suicide problem is a result of the national problem. This approach effectively absolves the Air Force of responsibility, which means the Air Force will simply mitigate the symptom, rather than addressing the cause.

However, if the national suicide problem was causing the spike in the Air Force, wouldn't the other services trend similarly? Let's see:


The Air Force increased by almost 50%, the Navy remained mostly the same and the Marine Corps looks like it decreased by 40%.

So, how can the Air Force hypothesize that the problem isn't unique to the service because it is a national problem.

Maybe the expectation from AF/A1 and AF/SG is that this problem is better addressed at the lowest levels? Recently Facebook groups have popped up with the intention of essentially crowd-sourcing support. While this type of support is a fantastic response from the field, it suggests a much larger issue: Servicemembers don't believe the Air Force will take the appropriate steps to solve this problem.

So where does this leave us?

I believe the Air Force is framing the suicide problem as something outside their control. I believe AF/A1 and other Pentagon officials are intentionally delaying the release of data that shows the contributing factors that has led us to this epidemic. I believe they violated FOIA regulations, both in their refusal to provide mandatory extensions with explanations, and their "no records" response that is clearly untrue. The only logical conclusion is they did a risk analysis and decided the data I requested is more damaging than the article I have written here.

I have been in contact with Air Force Public Affairs while writing this article in an effort to allow them to comment on this "no records" paradox.

Unfortunately they have elected not to respond.

I'm hoping to update with the data soon. When I do, you'll be the first to know.


You're welcome to join us on our Facebook page if you have any thoughts, experiences or suggestions to address the suicide problem in the Air Force.

This article has been corrected. Previously, it stated that the Air Force cut 45,000 personnel during the FY14 Force Reduction measures. The actual number was 17,000 in FY14, with an overall cut of 45,000 from 2001 end-strength numbers to FY14 end-strength numbers.



















Comments

  1. I too was active duty mx. I had too much to drink and decided it was done. All my Cc did was yell at me infront of the flight chief's and such for ruining his record of no ARI's

    ReplyDelete
  2. Unfortunately, after 11 years, I'm not certain that aircraft maintenance leadership really gives a shit about suicide. I've had some supervision/commanders that cared, but more often than not, the evidence suggests that leadership believes maintainers are a disposable resource.

    It's not like that everywhere, and certainly not in every career field in the USAF. But being part of the most continuously deployed unit in the USAF, I've definitely seen some Airmen that could have been saved but weren't.

    I've also seen some that attempted suicide, or talked about it, and now wholly regret bringing it to the USAF's attention. So much so, they advise others to keep those thoughts to their selves or family, as tipping off big blue will really mess with your life. And if you do not comply with the USAF's treatment plan, you are out the door.

    It does not surprise me at all that they stonewalled your FOIA request. What are you gonna do, write them a strongly worded letter? They can do as they please.

    ReplyDelete

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