Air Force commander grapples with servicemember’s suicide
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — While most people hunkered down for the night as a typhoon pounded the Tokyo area, an American airman plunged to his death from the 11th floor of a nearby hotel. Before dawn, Yokota base commander Col. Mark August received one of those calls that almost always bring a different kind of turmoil.
August learned he had lost a man — the first since he rose to command level 15 years earlier.
“When you get that phone call first thing in the morning — no one wants to get it, but when it happens, it triggers a very specific response, an AFI-driven response,” August told Stars and Stripes a few weeks after the death last fall.
Among the Air Force Instructions that flashed through his mind was AFI 90-505, the service’s first suicide prevention and response policy update in 15 years. It came last year as the services grappled with an epidemic of suicides — a record 349 in 2012, up 48 from the year before.
Commanders were given comprehensive post-suicide response plans and checklists. One of the first tips: Make the initial announcement with a balance of “need to know” and rumor control.
So when the call came, August put his shock and emotions on hold. He had to get to work.
“It’s very difficult sometimes to be that pure commander,” said August, an Air Force Academy grad. “It’s very hard to put your personal feelings aside and be the leader that an organization needs.
“But that’s what people are looking for from us,” he said. “It’s a very difficult lesson and almost impossible to teach.”
Among the top priorities was finding out what happened and why.
“We owe the family, we owe the unit, we owe the supervisors, we owe the friends a full-up response,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to start getting those answers, to preserve all the evidence so we can figure out what the truth may or may not have been. Get facts.”
For that, he had to call on the Office of Special Investigations, the Air Force’s criminal investigation arm. August, a C-130 pilot, also rallied his commanders, chaplains and mental health counselors, sending teams of grief counselors to the deceased airman’s unit.
“We had those teams available and on-site in the (unit) within an hour after we had gotten the news,” August said. “The death of one, that ripple is enormous across organizations and across bases. And so we have put a lot of time and energy and resources into making sure people have that outlet to be able to talk about these types of things.”
But institutional resources alone are not enough to stem the tide of suicide in the military, he said.
“It’s friends, coworkers, commanders, supervisors, all the folks that make a unit not a just a bunch of numbers but people; that’s really what’s going to make the difference.”
With the investigation, chaos and grief setting in, a grim reality dawned on August, who spent a year downrange in Southwest Asia commanding the 386th Expeditionary Operations Group before coming to Yokota last June.
“This is the first time I’ve lost somebody in my command,” he said, a somber look replacing his usual smile. “As a combat commander (I) brought everybody home, every single time.
“It comes down to (asking yourself), `How do you handle failure?’ Because in a way, that’s how commanders look at it,” August said. “At what point could we have broken this chain of events with all the resources we have available? How could we have missed this one?”
But the motives that drive servicemembers to suicide cannot always be explained in matter-of-fact military style. This one was no different.
The morning before his death, the airman was arrested on base for drunken driving. He was then restricted to his room, where his friends kept him company most of that Sunday until he sneaked away and left the base for the last time.
In the midst of a typhoon in the world’s biggest metropolis, tracking him down was next to impossible.
“He knew the next day once we got through the typhoon recovery that he was going to have to meet with his squadron commander and first sergeant,” August said. “This wasn’t one of those egregious crimes. We’re talking about alcohol.
“I don’t think we’ll get into the minds of some of these individuals, and that’s frustrating for all of us,” he said. “There’s no report that says this is exactly what happened. We’re never going to get that information.”
Even what seems to be a clear-cut case cannot be ruled a suicide until it’s investigated. In the meantime, it’s considered “unintended,” or unrelated to combat or illness, August said.
“If we start using this particular term with particular events, you’re kind of shaping the outcome,” August said. “There may have been other things. That’s why we have to wait for an autopsy.”
The process can take a while. In this case, it took about two months.
When Air Force investigators determined that the airman’s death was a suicide, it brought the case full circle, with a lot of work by a lot of people in between.
“There’s a lot more than just going to a memorial service,” August said of a commander’s role when confronted with a death. “There’s a lot more that goes on at the Air Force level, at the wing level and at the squadron level and everything in between. I think that’s an important part for folks to understand. “
August said his message in the aftermath of the suicide has been: Get help if you need it.
“That’s a huge lesson for all of us. It’s not easy to ask for help,” said August, who sought advice from other Air Force commanders about how to deal with the suicide. “But if I can do it, certainly anyone else can do it as well.
“Leading a command that experiences a suicide gives you a different perspective. It’s one thing to sit in briefings, PowerPoints and training classes and annual suicide prevention training. It’s another thing to walk your unit through, `How do I get back to mission accomplishment?’
“At the end of the day, our nation still expects us to be combat effective. Our nation still expects us to be professional airmen.”