"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

On The Threshold - Air Force Suicides

There has been a great deal of emphasis on suicides in the Air Force recently.  By that I mean several mandatory briefings led by mental health professionals who did so well in their training that they joined the military.  Speeches by chaplains fill in the rest, where they balance the line between what is appropriate to say and what is not, but make it clear that God prevents suicides.  I enjoy these briefings.  They bring me back in time to the third grade, just without the dolphin hand puppet.

The Air Force does have a problem with suicides, and the military overall.  A lot of people who joined have made the decision to take their own life.  I have encountered suicide a few times.  The first time was a kid in elementary school who asked his teacher if he could borrow a tie.  The teacher gave it to him, and the kid went home that night and hung himself with it.  I have no idea why a fourth grader would do such a thing, but I do remember that growing up in America was tough as a youngster.  It's a sad story.  When I was in college, my grandfather took his own life because his leg was going to be cut off and he didn't want to be a burden on others.  Or put another way, he demanded his independence as a condition for living.  This was the same man who in the Army Air Corps hit an officer with the butt of his weapon, and got kicked out.  He was fiercely independent and while he didn't always make the best decisions, he demanded he live life on his own terms.  I defended his decision to other family members who naturally were grieving and who used words like "selfish" to describe his action.  It was his life and he didn't want to live it anymore.  Agree or disagree, but it was his life.  To tell another they don't have the right to die is to tell them they don't own their own life.  As far as the military goes, I've only known one person to commit suicide.  He was a Major, good humored, funny, and he loved to kill the enemy and had a lot of experience doing so.  He killed himself on the day of his retirement after he was forced out at twenty.  He had children.  I don't understand his decision.

My personal view toward suicide is a bit different from the flavor I've seen in briefings.  First, I respect the individual's decision.  Second, in the off chance I'm given the opportunity to discuss their decision with them, I would weigh the pros and cons.  In most circumstances, the pros of living are much greater, I would guess, than the benefits of death.  Life can be a wonderful thing.  But it's not always peaches and dream for everybody, and it's important to not approach such a discussion with third grade insight.  I'm not going to take suicide off the table and treat the person like they're crazy or irrational for contemplating leaving life.  They're not, and the list of great and valuable people who have taken their own lives for valid reasons is long and distinguished.  We should be careful not to forget that our comfortable existence, and officer's paycheck, and the educated wife we met in college, and our winning lottery ticket in life's raffle are not shared by all people in the military, in the United States, and especially not around the world or throughout history.  Life is a struggle, and much more so for some people.

If the Air Force wants to do something useful to prevent suicide, then it needs to focus on educating airmen to make good life decisions that reduce stress.  There needs to be serious and mandatory financial training from the beginning of an airman's career.  Young airmen need to stop being treated like children who are made to live in dorms with inspections by their First Nanny, where the incentive to "grow up" and prove they are adults to their parents is fostered in another form.  We tell these youngsters that if they get married, then they can be like real adults and live off base and we'll even pay them more.  So they get married without thinking through one of life's most important decisions and the biggest cause of stress and feeling of entrapment of most any life decision.  Add a young immature wife with dreams of being married to the military, and you are almost guaranteed to add children and debt.  This is a recipe for disaster and stress.  Not for all, but for the least among us.  Then add on the sagging economy that many feel will crumble, the overwhelming dissatisfaction with our government representatives, long hours, deployments, and all the other problems that military life has to offer.  Airmen need options in their life to not feel trapped, and the Air Force in my experience seeks to box airmen in to make them feel trapped, to feel like they couldn't possibly leave the Air Force.  Where will you work?  You want to flip hamburgers and live on the street?  As the great Colonel John Boyd used to say, if you need nothing from the Air Force, then the Air Force can't take that away from you.

Or we could make airmen sign pledges not to kill themselves like certain Chinese iPad factories do.  Then again, perhaps we could learn from the deaths of those workers in China instead?  We don't like to admit that the same root causes could exist, but most airmen know that certainly can't be ruled out.  We need our leadership to realize it too.  They probably do.  We need them to act on it.

The current Air Force training and approach is a waste of time and perhaps counterproductive in my view.  We don't have the best mental health professionals, and those we train at the Base Theatre to go out and "save lives" might just do more harm than good with their snooty attitudes and their third grader approach to life's ultimate decision.  The Teacher in the book of Eccelesiastes, one of my favorite works of all time, examined the very question of suicide.  Attributed to the smartest man that ever lived, Solomon asked the question, "why is life worth living?"  The Teacher tells us that emptiness of emptiness, all is emptiness and says that better the man who has witnessed all the pain and oppression under the sun is the man who is now dead and doesn't have to witness it.  Better than both, he says, is the man who never was, and never will be, and who will never experience all the pain and oppression under the sun.  But Solomon later reasons that life is worth living because of the quest for knowledge and good friends.  Despite his conclusion, he still believes the man who never will exist has it better than he does.  Suicide is not a third grade matter.

I'll leave the reader with this poem I discovered in college in a class I took called Death and Dying.  For those airmen who feel they are experts ready to tackle the problems in another's life, please consider if you really have the life experiences to do so.  You don't want to be just another moron from an oppressive service under the sun, that has crowded somebody into leaving the room to get away from you.

On the Threshold

I am standing on the threshold of eternity at last,
As reckless of the future as I have been of the past;
I am void of all ambition, I am dead of every hope;
The coil of life is ended; I am letting go the rope.

I have drifted down the stream of life till weary, sore oppressed;
And I'm tired of all the motion and simply want a rest.
I have tasted all the pleasures that life can hold for man.
I have scanned the whole world over till there's nothing left to scan.

I have heard the finest music, I have read the rarest books,
I have drunk the purest vintage, I have tasted all the cooks;
I have run the scale of living and have sounded every tone,
There is nothing left to live for and I long to be alone.

Alone and unmolested where the vultures do not rave,
And the only refuge left me is the quiet, placid grave;
I am judge and jury mingled, and the verdict that I give
Is, that minus friends and money it is foolishness to live.

In a day or two my body will be found out in the lake;
The coroner will get a fee, and the printer get a "take";
The usual verdict-"Suicide, from causes yet unknown."
And Golgotha draws another blank, a mound without a stone.

To change the usual verdict I will give the reason now,
Before the rigid seal of death is stamped upon my brow.
'Tis the old familiar story of passion, love and crime,
Repeated thru the ages since Cleopatra's time.

A woman's lips, a woman's eye-a siren all in all,
A modem Circe fit to cause the strongest men to fall;
A wedded life, some blissful years, and poverty drops in
With care and doubt and liquor from whisky down to gin.

The story told by Tolstoi in comparison to mine
Is moonlight unto sunlight, as water unto wine;
The jealous pangs I suffered, the sleepless nights of woe
I pray no other mortal may ever undergo.

But I've said enough, I fancy, to make the reason plain-
Enough to show the causes of a shattered heart and brain;
What wonder then that life holds not a single thread to bind
A wish or hope to live for, an interest in mankind.

Already dead but living, a fact that I regret,
A man without desire excepting to forget,
And since there is denied me one, why should I linger here,
A dead leaf from the frost of a long-forgotten year?

So au revoir, old cronies; if there's a meeting place beyond,
I'll let you know in spirit, and I know you will respond;
I'm going now, old comrades, to heaven or to hell;
I'll let you know which shortly-farewell, a long farewell.


  1. Does the issue of suicide exist (almost) exclusively with airmen? Does it exist with officers also? Pilots? Drone pilots?

  2. Just revisited this post during a discussion of suicide. Sorry the late response. I'm positive that suicide does not exclusively exist with airmen and I'm not sure how anybody could think that might be the case. It's obvious. It exists with all people, and I specifically mentioned an officer who killed himself.