This year, 17 personnel have died at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, but Air Force officials have refused to say what the causes of those deaths were, citing concerns for families and units on base.
Kimberly Woodruff, a Tinker Air Force Base spokesperson, told Military.com on Wednesday that the base lost the personnel to "various causes, and several deaths remain under investigation."
Tinker Air Force Base has more than 30,000 personnel, and it's unclear how many of those deaths were service members, government employees, contractors or civilians tied to the base. One individual connected to the installation told Military.com that they had been informed of deaths connected to base this year including potential suicides, as well as COVID-19-related deaths.
"We are deeply saddened by the losses we have experienced at Tinker Air Force Base," Col. Abby Ruscetta, the Tinker installation commander, said in an emailed statement. "Our focus moving forward is to let everyone know we value them, and we stand together as a team."
Woodruff initially told Military.com on Tuesday that Air Force policy prohibits the installation from disclosing the number and causes of deaths, including suspected suicides still under investigation.
"I'm sorry, but we are not going to release the number of deaths at Tinker," Woodruff told Military.com in an email. "We have ongoing investigations and to protect the families and the units, we won't comment on those numbers. It is Air Force policy that we do not disclose information about deaths or their circumstances."
Department of the Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said it's up to the Department of Defense to release suicide statistics at the Pentagon level every quarter -- although those numbers are service-wide and don't specify commands or individual bases. She added there's no prohibition against a base releasing the total number of deaths at that installation.
Tinker Air Force Base public affairs later released the number of deaths this calendar year to Military.com but did not specify which deaths were being investigated as due to suicide, accidents, illnesses or other causes.
If you're a service member, civilian or government employee with close knowledge of any deaths in 2023 at Tinker Air Force Base, you can send an encrypted email to email@example.com to speak with a reporter and can be offered anonymity if you fear retribution.
Other services have quickly identified deaths and suspected suicides. In 2022, Army leaders and a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Washington, D.C., began bringing attention to a string of at least 11 suicides from soldiers stationed in Alaska the year prior.
The lack of transparency on the deaths at Tinker is especially concerning to military advocates such as Teri Caserta. As the mother of the late Brandon Caserta, a 21-year-old sailor who died by suicide in 2018, she pushed for the federal creation of the Brandon Act, which aims to help address mental health crises in the ranks.
Both Caserta and Military.com came across social media posts alleging Tinker was in the midst of a spate of suicides, which prompted inquiries to the base.
Caserta told Military.com that addressing issues at installations includes accountability for how and why personnel on Tinker Air Force Base are dying.
"Tinker does not have to disclose the names of the airmen/women who have died, but I believe we as citizens who have service members and who have children looking into serving our country deserve to know why and how airmen/women are dying," Caserta said in an email Wednesday. "We need to know that the Air Force takes all deaths as seriously as they claim and, if there is toxicity within the ranks at Tinker, they all should be held accountable for these deaths whether they are suicides or not."
Caserta's concern about Tinker comes two weeks after the Department of the Air Force announced it was updating and implementing its own Brandon Act mental health policies.
While all the military branches have struggled with growing numbers of suicides, the Air Force's apparent lack of transparency in even immediately disclosing deaths, much less details about them, stands in contrast with the Navy, which dealt with several major suicide clusters at its commands in the past 18 months.
Last April, when Military.com inquired about reports of a spate of suicides about the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, the Navy immediately confirmed some of the deaths -- including that some were "suspected suicides" -- despite the last death being five days prior.
The Navy made similar admissions when media outlets reached out over reports of suicides at an East Coast maintenance center in November and the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in December and January.
Woodruff told Military.com in an emailed statement that Tinker is "committed to fostering a culture that values and encourages help-seeking behavior and enhances individual confidence" and is working with various offices at the installation to promote connectedness.
"Tinker Air Force Base officials have engaged with our people following the recent losses of life and has a network of helping agencies to include mental health counselors, chaplains, and Military Family Readiness professionals," Woodruff said.
The Air Force reported 17 suicides across the entire active-duty force, two in the reserves and five in the Air National Guard between Jan. 1 and March 31 of this year, according to the Department of Defense's quarterly report.
Last year, the Air Force reported 63 suicides in the active-duty service, 13 in the reserve and 14 in the Air National Guard.
Tinker, located in Oklahoma City, is home to the Air Force's Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex, which provides maintenance on a wide range of aircraft, as well as the 552nd Air Control Wing and the 72nd Air Base Wing. It also houses some Navy facilities, along with offices for the Defense Logistics Agency.
If you are a service member or veteran who needs help, it is available 24/7 at the Veterans and Military Crisis Line, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org, or through the online chat function at www.veteranscrisisline.net.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.