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AFSO21 Suicide Prevention Team addresses countermeasures to suicide rate

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- The results of the Air Force Space Command Suicide Prevention Working Group AFSO21 Suicide Prevention Event were recently briefed to Maj. Gen. Michael J. Basla, AFSPC vice commander and AFSO21 Suicide Prevention Event champion, which coincides with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz issuing a mandatory Wingman Stand Down Air Force-wide in May.

The goal of the AFSO21 Suicide Prevention Event was to analyze any performance gaps in the current AFSPC suicide prevention program in order to decrease the number of suicides within AFSPC's total force of active duty, Reserve, Guard and civilians. The AFSPC Suicide Prevention Working Group started planning data collection in November 2009, producing an initial eight-step process that was drastically expanded during the week-long event this February.

"One suicide or suicide attempt is one too many," said Col. Thomas Peppard, AFSPC director of Safety and the AFSO21 Suicide Prevention Event process owner. "The event found that despite existing resources, campaigns and training in the AFSPC Suicide Prevention Program, AFSPC's suicide rate is unacceptable."

AFSPC's goal is zero suicides.

Due to the alarming number of suicides Air Force-wide, General Schwartz issued a memo to all major command commanders ordering a mandatory Wingman stand down in May. According to the memo, "we must redouble our efforts to identify those at risk for suicide and get them the support needed to regain hope and balance in their lives. Other reckless behaviors such as not wearing proper motorcycle protective equipment, speeding, extreme maneuvers, and use of alcohol when driving lead to fatal accidents. We must intervene with our fellow Airmen when we see risky behaviors or hopelessness."

In turn, Gen. C. Robert Kehler, AFSPC commander, is ordering AFSPC units to hold a Wingman stand down by May 14, prior to the AFSPC commander's conference. HQ AFSPC directorates will accomplish their Wingman stand down on May 5. The Wingman events will equip all Airmen with the tools to recognize and assist those in distress, reenergize the Wingman culture, and help each other make correct safety decisions.

"The Wingman stand down is designed to encourage Wingmen to be vigilant of the dangers suicide and safety incidents present by devoting time for structured unit discussion," General Kehler said. "Commanders and small group leaders will lead group discussions amongst Airmen to help educate about what the Wingman culture is as well as decrease the stigma associated with getting help and assisting fellow Wingmen in distress."

This stand down day coincides with the results from AFSPC Suicide Prevention Working Group, which recommended 36 countermeasures in the command's suicide prevention program in order to create a safe reporting culture - starting with leadership up and down the chain; review the content and standardize available suicide prevention resources.

"We suggested nine of these countermeasures to General Basla to implement and review their effectiveness," Colonel Peppard said. "We discussed a few assumptions during the event. First, strong interpersonal relationships can positively affect the suicide rate, and secondly, strong supervisory skills can lead to an effective suicide prevention program implementation.

"Additionally, the frequency of exposure to prevention resources can increase the impact," the Colonel continued.

Some of the briefed countermeasures included supervisors building more trusting relationships as well as providing all AFSPC members easy access to more information and building on the current Wingman culture.

"This working group did an excellent job on the AFSO21 Suicide Prevention project," General Basla said. "This is about saving lives. If we can save the life of one Airman, Guardsman, Reservist or civilian than this effort has been worth it."

The AFSPC Suicide Prevention Working Group will work hand-in-hand with the Air Force Suicide Prevention Working Group to build a stronger program, promoting the Wingman culture while providing more easily accessible information and encouraging more trusting, supportive relationships throughout the Air Force.

"Suicide Prevention is everyone's responsibility," General Kehler said. "One of the goals of the Wingman stand down is to help create a culture that encourages seeking help early, Wingmen being connected to one another, and encourages appropriate safety measures."

"Suicide and safety incidents are not prevented in the hospital emergency rooms; they are prevented in the unit by fellow Wingmen addressing concerns on a daily basis," General Kehler concluded.