To turn the corner on Air Force suicides, let chaplains take the lead
“This has been the toughest year of my career.”
In late-2016, a fellow squadron commander and close friend was in my office at Yokota Air Base in Japan. Sadly, he was in a familiar, dark place: Leading his airmen through the pain and despair of another suicide. It was the third suicide that year within our base’s maintenance group, part of an epidemic gripping the Air Force, the Department of Defense and American society writ large.
According to the latest annual report released by the Department of Defense in October 2020, from 2015 to 2019, the overall rate of deaths by suicide rose from 20.2 to 25.9 deaths per 100,000. Between 2018 and 2019, the Air Force’s numbers jumped from 18.5 to 25.1 per 100,000. In August 2019, then-Chief of Staff of the Air Force General David Goldfein wrote, “Suicide is an adversary that is killing more of our airmen than any enemy on the planet.” By contrast, through April 27, 2021, the Air Force reported zero uniformed COVID deaths after one year of pandemic.
Undoubtedly, the Air Force is taking the suicide rate seriously. Multiple operations stand-downs have occurred over the last decade to discuss support options, destigmatize mental health assistance and train airmen regarding signs of suicide risk in themselves and others. The Air Force designed online family suicide prevention training, created master resilience trainers, organized transient civilian military and family life counselors and introduced professional services to improve access to mental health care. Unfortunately, suicide rates continued to rise.
Roughly a decade ago, the Air Force introduced the Comprehensive Airman Fitness (CAF) initiative. CAF affirms airman resilience by focusing on four core pillars: Mental, physical, social and spiritual fitness. Often compared to a four-legged stool that falls when unbalanced, the “spiritual leg” of the larger Air Force CAF “stool” has shrunk over the last decade. This imbalance stems from a de-evolution of the squadron chaplain and a deemphasis of the spiritual pillar’s importance, ultimately contributing to today’s suicide epidemic.
Arguably, chaplains are the most dynamic professionals in the military. Besides dozens of smaller responsibilities, four core duties compete for a chaplain’s precious time: Congregational pastor, confidential counselor, commander’s advisor and unit chaplain. As my squadron’s chaplain’s assistant used to say, “Chaplains are pastors to some, chaplains to all.”
In the early 2010s, the Air Force executed significant chaplain cuts during the heart of wartime deployments. To accommodate the lack of chaplains, installations either eliminated individual chaplain squadron assignments or increased the number of squadrons (often five or more) to which chaplains were assigned. The lack of persistent chaplain presence in the squadron removed a uniformed, trained counselor with whom, regardless of religious affiliation, airmen could develop personal connections outside of the chain-of-command — connections that could assist in identifying and stemming suicidal ideations before they become suicide attempts.
Furthermore, throughout the last decade, persistent, public condemnation of suspected proselytization within the military has caused commanders to lose focus on the CAF’s spiritual pillar. Significantly more energy has been spent on curbing proselytization and debating “gray area” spiritual issues than on the spiritual health and well-being of individual airmen. This includes (but is not limited to) debates as minor as commanders having a Bible amongst the books in their squadron offices. These incidents create impetus for commanders to “play it safe” and avoid addressing the spiritual pillar altogether.
Two years ago, at select bases, the Air Force began Task Force True North, a four-initiative program to improve airmen and family resilience. Three of the four initiatives involve embedding support teams of mental and physical health experts, social workers and chaplains inside lower-level units. Specifically, the religious support team initiative appoints a chaplain and religious affairs enlisted airman to oversee multiple squadrons and provide religious, spiritual and personal support to airmen and their families in a more accessible way, thus shifting chaplain support closer to the squadron level.
While True North should immediately be fully-funded and broadened to all bases, the Air Force needs to expand upon the religious support team initiative by increasing the size of its chaplain corps, with a goal of full Air Force-wide chaplain reintegration at the squadron-level. Installations need enough chaplains to limit unit assignments to no more than three smaller or two larger squadrons. This would provide chaplains the ability to “live amongst the airmen,” allowing deeper foundational relationships and creating viable avenues of personal intervention for those in crisis. The limit also allows chaplains the necessary time to accomplish their many other required duties.
Additionally, the Air Force must reorient its commanders on the importance of the squadron chaplain. During pre-squadron command training, future commanders should engage in extensive interactive conversation regarding the chaplain corps’ multifaceted roles, responsibilities and integration into all aspects of squadron life. Upon assuming command, squadron commanders should meet monthly with their assigned chaplain to discuss unit morale, resilience and comprehensive fitness. Instead of avoiding CAF’s spiritual pillar altogether, commanders must have the courage to remain focused on all four CAF pillars within their units.
For more than a year, COVID-19 has significantly affected both the mission and the people of our Armed Forces. However, COVID pales in comparison to the multi-generational toll of suicide throughout our military. Reinvigorating the spiritual pillar of CAF through increased integration of Air Force chaplains at the squadron-level is an important step in stemming the suicide epidemic enveloping our airmen. We must devote more time and financial treasure to support the comprehensive fitness of our most valuable resource: the men and women of the United States Air Force.
Colonel Denny R. Davies, United States Air Force, is a National Security Affairs fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.