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New Suicide Prevention Approach Praised by Airmen

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jeremy Cornelius, center, 118th Wing public affairs superintendent, Tennessee Air National Guard, facilitates a small group discussion with Maj. Robert Dunbar, right, and Airman 1st Class Willie Williams, left, for the 118th WG's resiliency tactical pause Dec. 4, 2019 at Berry Field Air National Guard Base, Nashville, Tennessee. The discussion was part of the Air Force-wide initiative ordered by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein to combat the rising numbers of suicides in the Air Force.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jeremy Cornelius, center, 118th Wing public affairs superintendent, Tennessee Air National Guard, facilitates a small group discussion with Maj. Robert Dunbar, right, and Airman 1st Class Willie Williams, left, for the 118th WG's resiliency tactical pause Dec. 4, 2019 at Berry Field Air National Guard Base, Nashville, Tennessee. The discussion was part of the Air Force-wide initiative ordered by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein to combat the rising numbers of suicides in the Air Force. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Anthony Agosti)

Nashville, Tenn. --

On Aug. 1, 2019, Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright announced in a video that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein was ordering an Air Force-wide resiliency tactical pause in response to the rising suicide crisis in its ranks. In that video, Wright stated, “We won’t tell you what to do, we won’t tell you how to do it.”

This openness from leadership in allowing units to tailor their own resiliency tactical pauses has been a refreshing change of pace for the Tennessee Air National Guard’s 118th Wing at Berry Field Air National Guard Base, Nashville, Tennessee.

Mike Pettinelli, the director of psychological health at the 118th WG, said that allowing units to mold their resiliency tactical pause discussions to their unique culture has resulted in numerous positive responses from Airmen in the wing.

“The feedback we've been getting is that it's different and they like it; it's not somebody with a PowerPoint presentation telling them what to look for,” said Pettinelli. “Our encouragement was if it's authentic and it's genuine, there's really no wrong way to do it.”

Pettinelli said he also credits the Resilience Tactical Pause Playbook released by Air Force leadership as a good foundation and starting point for a unit’s conversation on resiliency and is adaptable enough to modify discussions for their unit’s culture.

Master Sgt. Keith Lester, the 118th Security Forces Squadron unit training manager, said his unit had small group discussions broken down by squad, and each full-time member also had individual meetings with their flight chief. He said this format allowed members in his unit to open up and share.

“They enjoyed this style much better,” said Lester. “The security forces career field is very alpha male, alpha female. It's hard for a group like that to sit down and talk.”

Other units with different missions enjoyed having discussions with people they worked with the most.

“We have these [separate offices] that people go behind; we're so close to each other in intimate settings for such long periods of time that we're able to make that a comfort zone,” said Capt. Myyah, a member of the 118th Operations Group, whose last name is withheld for security purposes. “It's been great. We're able to talk to each other about what we deal with personally, not in the auditorium with all Air Force specialty codes who don't understand me.”

Still, other groups put a lot of focus on making sure the best people were leading the discussions for them.

“Star facilitators were hand-picked based on their training and desire to share their personal experiences with Airmen,” said Chief Master Sgt. Joseph, superintendent of the 118th Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Group. “To combat the stigma that's associated with seeking help, we must share our personal stories, to include how we deal with crisis and our recovery efforts.”

While the resiliency tactical pause is ongoing through December 2019, many units have begun to implement ideas suggested by Airmen to help build trust and relationships within their sections.

Joseph said one Airman in the 118th ISRG proposed connecting Airmen with similar interests to help fight loneliness. From that suggestion, members have already begun to form meet-up groups within the unit based around exercise and college classes.

Lester said 118th SFS members gave him over three pages of suggestions. Currently, their members have made commitments to check in with one another and schedule things to do together outside of work.

Pettinelli said these moves by Airmen to keep building relationships and connections with each other in their own ways is key to solving the crisis of suicide in the Air Force.

“There's an inertia, a motivation to want to continue this because it is not the same old same old,” said Pettinelli. “It's kind of like keeping a blood pressure or a pulse; it’s that continuous ongoing assessment of how your folks are doing.”

In the end, Airmen are grateful that leadership decided to do something different and let them address the issues at hand in their own way.

“Bravo to the chief master sgt. of the Air Force, this has been one of the best items pertaining to suicide that I've seen since I've been in the Air Force,” said Myyah. “No more pencil whipping, because we're actually getting after the real things that cause people to segregate themselves.”

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