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Suicides Have AF Officials On Edge
The Gazette
October 9, 2004

A recent spike in Air Force suicides, 10 in September, has leaders scrambling to find the cause after launching prevention programs this year because of a gradual rise.

"This rash has scared the hell out of us," Air Force Secretary James Roche said in an interview with The Gazette on Friday, conceding that officials are baffled. "We don't know. We just don't know."

Roche also discussed a recent Air Force Academy cadet survey, to be unveiled next week, that shows modest improvement in attitudes toward women and sexual assault. He was at the academy this week for a meeting with four-star generals.

Suicide has been a persistent problem for the Air Force. As of Wednesday, it is on pace to double last year's suicide rate. After recognizing the pattern this year, the Air Force adopted information and training campaigns to identify people in distress.

Although the Air Force historically has reported rates 25 percent lower than other branches, this year's figures put them on a par with or ahead of the Army and Navy, Roche said.

Roche said the recent suicides involved white men, most 19 to 24. None involved airmen sent to Iraq or Afghanistan or those who have returned.

"Our kids are killing themselves at a greater rate than the insurgents are killing our kids," he said.

Roche said he and Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper told generals this week to "bring attention to it." Each major command has been told to adopt prevention programs or take steps they deem effective.

The Air Force also will examine "what happens when we send leaders overseas as part of the expeditionary force, and they're filled in with leaders who think they're only there temporarily. They may not realize they have a tougher burden because they've got to catch up on how the young people think and behave."

Roche said the service will study what stress factors are contributing to the trend.

"We're bringing chaplains in, doctors in, personnel people. They're going at it," Roche said.

Civilian experts also might be consulted "to make sure we haven't missed anything."

Roche likened the response to the push for solutions to the sexual assault scandal, which broke in early 2003 after female cadets said the academy had ignored their sexual assault reports.

The claims prompted several investigations, the ouster of academy leaders and changes in how cadets live, train and are expected to behave.

They also triggered closer monitoring of cadet attitudes. In the first annual cadet survey, in August 2003, one in five male cadets said women don't belong at the academy.

In a voluntary poll given in March, the results were the same. In the annual survey given this August, however, a diminishing percentage say women don't belong.

Roche said the results, although a step in the right direction, don't indicate that problems are solved.

On other matters, he said:

Airmen and commanders like the change from 90- to 120-day deployments in Iraq. Longer tours also carry bigger gaps between deployments, to 20 months from 15 months.

"They feel that once you're there, staying another 30 days is no big deal," he said.

The "blue to green" program, which allows enlisted personnel to switch to the Army when their Air Force hitches are up, has drawn fewer than 500 transfers.

The Air Force has 2,300 airmen in Iraq protecting Army convoys and taking on other Army duties because the Army exhausted its transportation corps.

The deployments haven't been popular, Roche said.

"They feel they joined the Air Force. They don't mind the mission, but they want to do it as airmen. They don't just want to be plug-and-play soldiers," he said, adding that the service is working with the Army to find ways to give airmen latitude to "plan out the mission."

Roche predicted the smart money for long-range space defense systems is on laser communications, which will increase capacity 700- fold.

There's also potential in building spacecraft to operate in the area from 65,000 feet, or about 12 miles, to 186 miles above Earth, commonly called nearspace. The band is beyond the range of airplanes but not high enough for an object to orbit.

If balloon-type vehicles were situated in near-space, Roche said, surveillance of specific sections of the globe would be cheaper than satellite-reliant systems.

"It seems to offer an area that would be a complement to satellites and to airborne systems," he said.

Roche said the concept is in "early, early development."

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Copyright 2004 The Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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