Pacific Air Forces sends team to address uptick in suicides
By LEON COOK | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 5, 2016
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Pacific Air Forces is looking into a spate of airman suicides, including three since April from Yokota’s maintenance group, 374th Airlift Wing commander Col. Kenneth Moss says.
About 200 airmen and civilians gathered last week for a town-hall meeting at the base’s main chapel to share their feelings about the recent deaths.
“The only way to realize you’re not alone is to understand that other people have many of the same struggles we all share,” Moss told those in attendance. “The only way to know that is to have a conversation. I can handle broke airplanes. I can’t handle broke airmen.”
PACAF has sent a team to investigate the Yokota incidents, and will also evaluate Misawa and Kadena air bases, he said.
The “suicide prevention support team” will “offer assistance and recommend improvements in order to affect changes targeted at preventing future suicide attempts and saving lives,” an Air Force official told Stars and Stripes via email.
The team includes a mix of experts from several PACAF installations and the Air Force Personnel Center, including mental and spiritual health specialists, resiliency and community readiness experts, and junior and senior enlisted airmen.
The team will spend about three weeks as each installation, starting with Kadena last week. It is “charged with conducting a thorough review of the programs, procedures and policies in place across several PACAF bases in order to ensure airmen have the tools to assist with maintaining their resiliency and comprehensive fitness,” the statement said.
In the meantime, Yokota’s flight operations tempo is being reduced, Moss told the meeting. An official later clarified that some flights identified as not strictly necessary will be eliminated into the new year.
The three who took their lives at Yokota were all assigned to the 374th Maintenance Group. An airman who knew them told Moss that none had showed signs of suicidal behavior.
Overwork, especially in the maintenance group, was cited by some at the meeting as a cause of stress.
Air Force ranks have shrunk by thousands over the past few years as the service looks to save money in an era of uncertain funding. Commanders have been asked to build a “leaner, meaner Air Force” and “do more with less,” but mission requirements have stayed the same, airmen told Moss, adding that the cuts have left many feeling that careers can be ended “one strike” and don’t seek help when they need it. Others cited wait times for mental health services.
Stars and Stripes reporter Seth Robson contributed to this report.