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Fairchild wing commander works to combat suicidal ideation, other issues challenging airmen

By TED MCDERMOTT | The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash. | Published: October 22, 2020

SPOKANE, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — Col. Cassius Bentley III, commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base, said Wednesday his "first priority is our airmen."

But those airmen, he explained during a video conference call with the West Plains Chamber of Commerce, are facing some difficult challenges, including shortages of child care and housing and issues with suicidal ideation. Bentley said he and others at Fairchild are working hard to aid airmen and their families who have been dealing with such concerns.

Bentley noted that last year saw the highest suicide rate in the Air Force and that this year has been as high "or higher." Data from the Department of Defense supports that claim.

According to the department's Annual Suicide Report for 2019, the overall rate of deaths by suicide across the services rose from 20.2 deaths per 100,000 in 2015 to 25.9 in 2019.

The rate among members of the Air Force, in particular, rose to a rate of 25.1 last year from a rate of 18.5 the year before.

As Bentley indicated, the problem could be getting worse. The department's second-quarter suicide report from this year showed a further increase service-wide. As of July 31, 170 service members had died of suspected or confirmed suicide, compared to 163 at the same time in 2019. The Air Force has seen a slight decline, from 40 in the first half of last year to 37 this year.

Bentley said he's working with health providers to come up with effective preventative measures to keep those numbers down and to ensure Fairchild airmen maintain important social connections during a pandemic that has kept people apart.

"We just want to make sure we're there for them," Bentley said.

Among the strategies for doing so, he said, has been to implement Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, which is commonly known as ASIST.

Bentley said he is also working to bring United Service Organizations, or USO, to the base and is encouraging airmen "to help themselves as well." To that end, he said Fairchild is encouraging them to establish clubs and put on events, such as a recent car show, that will help them gather, with appropriate precautions in place, and let loose.

"We are definitely doing everything we can to increase the connections for the airmen and their families," Bentley said.

He said he's also working to try to help airmen and their families navigate two other growing challenges in Spokane: access to child care and housing.

A lack of child care providers on base, he said, led to a waiting list that was recently 115-people long. While "very aggressive" efforts to find new providers shortened the waiting list by about 20%, he said, the issue has persisted.

Bentley said he appealed recently to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers for assistance, and the Republican congresswoman pledged "to engage on our behalf" to advocate for solutions.

Bentley said airmen and their families have also been affected by the regionwide increase in housing prices and decline in housing stock.

While Fairchild has gained some 400 families over the past year and a half, he said, it has seen a recent decline in the amount of on-base housing. That means airmen have had to look increasingly off-base for housing, where competition is high on the booming West Plains and throughout much of the rest of the area.

For that reason, Bentley told those on the call, he has been exploring the possibility of obtaining housing allowances to help fill some gaps in affordability.

But even as he noted the challenges posed by Spokane's growth — and growing costs — Bentley attributed it to the area being "such an awesome place."

Overall, Bentley said, his focus as commander of the "largest tanker force in the universe" is "empowerment and innovation" in the face of challenges.

"We've got a lot of talented airmen here," he said.

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