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Air Force Must Do More to Curb Record Number of Suicides, Cody Says

When life gets difficult, suicide can seem like the only way out. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Steven White)
When life gets difficult, suicide can seem like the only way out. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Steven White)

The Air Force has to do a better job of curbing suicides and dealing with quality of life issues that add to stress in the ranks following the worst year on record for suicides, the top enlisted airman said.

When asked what the service was doing to bring down the suicide rate, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James A. Cody said "Obviously not enough to be honest with you. We're struggling with it."

He pointed to an upcoming summit among the services on the issue to "try to figure how we're missing the mark. We lose too many airmen. We lose far too many airmen. I wish I had a good answer on how to get out of this."

Cody and his wife, Athena, spoke Monday at a forum on personnel with Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and their spouses at the Air Force Association's annual Air and Space Conference at National Harbor, Maryland.

A Pentagon report in the spring said that the number of suicides among active-duty military personnel increased slightly last year, while those among members of the Reserves and National Guard dropped by nearly 25 percent.

According to the 2014 Defense Department 4th Quarter Suicide Information Report, the Army had 122 active-duty suicides, the Navy 53, the Air Force 59, and the Marine Corps 34. The 59 deaths in the Air Force were the most in a single year for the service since the military began tracking suicides closely in the early 2000s.

At the conference, Cody also expressed concerns about the status of quality of life programs in the Air Force and the need to balance the high operations tempo over the past decade against finding the time for Airmen to be with their families.

"I think we have to have a conversation on what's reasonable and sustainable," he said.  When "you have to get the job done, you get the job done," but "when we're not at that ops tempo, we have to give you pretty directed time to go out and do what you need to do."

"We just don't have a good track record with it," Cody said. "What we have is a track record of pushing people beyond what's reasonable and sustainable. We're going to lose our best people if we don't get this right."

Welsh said that funding for family support programs waxes and wanes with the budgets. "When budgets are good, you can add lot of quality of life programs," Welsh said.

When budgets decline, "you have to decide what to take away from those quality of life programs and we go through phases where we'll  identify core programs" to keep and others to consider cutting, Welsh said.

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@miitary.com

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