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.
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 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.
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.
In July, the Army experienced 38 suicides, the highest monthly total since the service began releasing monthly figures in 2009.
This year's current Army suicide rate of 29 deaths-per-100,000 far exceeds the comparable civilian rate of 18.5 percent for a demographically similar population.
Amid the unprecedented numbers, the Army ordered its own daylong “stand down” Sept. 27 for soldiers to receive intensive suicide prevention and awareness training.
While the number of suicides in the Army has been rising, the number of such deaths among the 14,000 military personnel stationed at Fort Sill has stayed stable, averaging just more than two per year for the past 10 years. So far this year, one soldier assigned to the sprawling Army post near Lawton has committed suicide.
At Fort Hood in Texas, the Army's second largest post with more than 45,800 uniformed personnel, 122 soldiers took their own lives since the beginning of 2003, the most of any installation. At Fort Bragg, N.C., the Army's largest post with about 56,000 soldiers, 97 committed suicide during the same period.
“We've been very fortunate,” said Jay Khalifeh, Fort Sill's substance abuse program director. “We have one of the lowest, if not the lowest suicide rate (of any installation) in the Army.”
Khalifeh credited Fort Sill's vigorous suicide prevention program and a command staff that is supportive of mental health initiatives.
“The headline here should be there's a lot of people here doing things right,” Khalifeh said. “If we're not keeping them alive here in garrison … we're not doing our job.”
Khalifeh said typical triggering events for suicides at the fort have been relationship issues, pending disciplinary action or financial troubles. Statistics detailing how many of the Fort Sill soldiers who committed suicide had previously deployed were not immediately available. Most of the suicides involving the fort's personnel tend to occur either in the spring or in August.
“We've become extra vigilant around that time,” Khalifeh said.
That means more training on things like how to identify symptoms and where to get help. Promotional materials and banners are posted around the installation that emphasize a feeling of belonging, being part of a larger community that cares and watching out for each other.
“We want people to reach out when they see people in trouble,” he said.
In 2011, four Oklahoma National Guard soldiers killed themselves. Already this year, five have taken their own lives, including two in August. This is the highest number of Oklahoma National Guard suicides in one year since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001.
“Anytime you lose a citizen-soldier it has an impact on that unit and we've experienced way too many suicides over the past two years,” said guard spokesman Lt. Col. Max Moss. “It's not only devastating for the friends and family of those who took their lives, it has a negative impact on us as a force.”
The soldiers, all men who ranged in age from 18 to 31, served in a variety of units, including infantry, artillery, supply and intelligence. Four had deployed, including two who served on the most recent tour with the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan. Moss, however, said factors other than deployments appeared to be the major contributing factor in the deaths.
Seven were facing relationship difficulties. Four had a history of excessive drug or alcohol use. Four were unemployed. Two faced criminal charges.
“Excessive alcohol use and relationship problems with family, girlfriends and others have been a deadly combination for our soldiers,” Moss said.
Maj. Gen. Myles L. Deering, who as adjutant general oversees Oklahoma's 9,400 Army and Air National Guard members, plans to meet with his top leaders in coming weeks to discuss the issue, Moss said.
A decade ago, it was common in some units to stigmatize soldiers who sought mental health treatment. Changing those attitudes throughout the ranks became a priority. Soldiers now are encouraged to consult with chaplains, behavioral health professionals and others. The Army also offers many programs designed to help soldiers and their families cope, Moss said.
“We're doing the best we can to create an environment where soldiers know it's OK to reach out for help,” he said.