AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — At a time when suicide rates for the Army and Marines appear to have leveled off, the Air Force has seen a spike in the number of its troops taking their own lives.

As a result, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz has called for bases to hold stand-downs to address the issue. Through May 7, 22 active-duty airmen have committed suicide, according to the Air Force Surgeon General’s Office. At that pace, the service would far surpass figures for the past seven years. The Air Force has averaged 39 suicides a year since 2003.

“The Air Force is experiencing an alarming number of deaths due to non-combat causes,” according to a letter signed by Schwartz and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy.

As evidence, the letter references 18 suicides, meaning four more airmen have taken their lives since the letter was written a couple of weeks ago.

The Air Force, along with the other services, have had similar stand-downs in recent years to focus on the issue.

The Army began a suicide awareness campaign last spring after seeing a spike in its suicide numbers. Through the first four months of the year, it has reported 49 “potential suicides” among active-duty troops through April, with only nine of them confirmed. At that pace, roughly 150 soldiers would take their own lives, after 163 suicides in 2009.

The Marines have reported 14 suicides so far in 2010 after 52 in 2009, and the Navy has registered eight suicides through April, which is far below the 2009 numbers, when 48 sailors committed suicide.

In addition to the 22 active-duty airmen, 10 members of the Air Force National Guard or Air Force Reserve and four Air Force civilians have killed themselves this year.

“Multiple factors are known to put people at risk for suicide and no single factor is responsible,” according to a statement issued by the Air Force surgeon general’s office.

Most of the cases probably involve issues such as depression, financial or relationship troubles or other factors common in those who kill themselves in the general population, officials said.

Ramstein and Spangdahlem air bases in Germany are among the Air Force bases that have already staged wingman days this month, but many others are set to hold similar events in the next two weeks. The briefings — mandatory for active-duty personnel — focus not only on suicides, but motor-vehicle accidents and the tenets of being a good wingman.

In addition to the 22 suicides, the service also lost eight airmen in motor-vehicle accidents so far in 2010. In contrast, two airmen have died from combat injuries during the same timeframe.

Stars and Stripes reporters Jennifer Svan and Warren Peace contributed to this report.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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