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Military tries to stem high number of suicides among personnel

An analysis released by the Pentagon in June found suicide now to be the second-leading cause of death among troops following combat. Military officials are working to stanch that trend.
by Phillip O'Connor Modified: September 22, 2012 at 9:35 pm •  Published: September 24, 2012

David M. Walker II enjoyed motorcycles and getting muddy, but also was a “momma's boy,” who told his mother that he was never too big to sit on her lap.

The 20-year-old Airman 1st Class from Spring Hill, Tenn., died July 31 in a dorm at Tinker Air Force Base.

According to the state medical examiner's office, Walker hanged himself.

Walker's death is part of a troubling surge in the number of suicides by military members that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently characterized as an “epidemic.”

An analysis released by the Pentagon in June found suicide now to be the second-leading cause of death among troops following combat.

“All of us, and frankly for that matter all Americans, have to always support and care for those who have stepped forward to defend our country in uniform,” Panetta said in a recent speech on the issue.

“We are a family, and by God we have to take care of our family members.”

Walker's was the second suicide this year at Tinker. In March, Baanh Dinh, 24, shot his wife, Priscilla Dinh-Kittelson, in an apparent murder-suicide. Both were active duty Air Force members stationed at Tinker.

Since the beginning of 2011, nine Oklahoma National Guard members and four soldiers from Fort Sill have killed themselves.

Reasons for the rising number of self-inflicted deaths and the role that more than a decade at war has played are not fully understood.

The increase comes after the military already has invested millions of dollars in suicide prevention and research in recent years.

Prevention efforts

A Pentagon spokeswoman said several steps are being taken to reduce the number of suicides. They include:

• Making prevention a top priority in the department and asking every leader in the chain of command to create a climate that supports those who seek help.

• Undertaking the largest mental health risk and resilience study ever conducted among military personnel.

• Increasing the number of health care providers by 35 percent over the past three years and raising the number of such workers embedded with front-line units.

“Our most valuable resource within the department is our people,” department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said.

“We are committed to taking care of our people and that includes doing everything possible to prevent suicides in the military.”

Tinker deaths

Tinker officials said they would not discuss details of Walker's death until his autopsy report is released.

Like other military services, Air Force leaders have expressed alarm in recent years about an increase in the number of suicides in its ranks.

“It's always a concern,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Wright, Medical Operations Squadron Commander at Tinker, which is home to about 7,600 military personnel. “One is a problem,”

Walker joined the military in October 2010. He was assigned to the 552nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Tinker and worked as a crew chief on the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Controls System, or AWACS aircraft, but had not deployed overseas.

Aircraft maintainers, security forces and the intelligence branch are the highest-risk groups in the Air Force for suicide, Wright said. They also are among the largest occupational groups and have some of the highest operational tempos, which he said posed an additional risk factor for suicides.

Stand down

In January, Tinker took part in an Air Force-wide “stand down” that leaders ordered following a spike in suicides to start the year. Airmen were given time off from their regular routines to receive resiliency training.

Tinker also recently instituted new Air Force resiliency training for new airmen aimed at curbing destructive behavior, including suicide. Since October, more than 400 airmen arriving at Tinker received an eight-hour briefing that teaches them assertive communication skills, self awareness, the value of optimism and other life skills.

The base also holds “Wingman Days” twice a year to focus on mental health and taking care of each other.

“We really do have a culture where we're trying to make sure everybody has somebody looking out for them,” said Ralph Monson, Tinker's public affairs director.

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by Phillip O'Connor
Enterprise Editor
O'Connor joined the Oklahoman staff in June, 2012 after working at The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a combined 28 years. O'Connor, an Oklahoma City resident, is a graduate of Kansas State University. He has written frequently...
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