Amid Deaths, Tinker Air Force Base Remains Tight-Lipped on Number of Suicides

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A bird's eye view of Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., taken Sept. 16, 2016. (Tech. Sgt. Lauren Gleason/Air Force)
A bird's eye view of Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., taken Sept. 16, 2016. (Tech. Sgt. Lauren Gleason/Air Force)

Some of the 17 deaths at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma this year are suspected to be caused by suicide, Military.com has learned, but service and base officials refused to disclose the exact number of suicides among personnel at the installation or the circumstances behind them.

Of the total deaths since Jan. 1, six are from unspecified causes. An Air Force official said some of those six are suspected suicides, but details on exactly how many remain unclear, as officials cite Pentagon and internal suicide prevention policies as justification for not releasing more information.

The other 11 deaths have been attributed to illnesses such as COVID-19 or natural causes, as well as accidents, Tinker Air Force Base said. That number includes civilian employees and government workers as well as Air Force and Navy service members at the installation, which has a population of about 30,000.

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"Eleven of the lost uniformed and civilian airmen died as a result of natural causes or accidents," an emailed statement from Tinker Air Force Base said. "The six remaining losses are a result of other causes, some of which remain under investigation. Most of those lost were civilians."

Last week, Military.com asked Tinker Air Force Base how many suicides there had been in the last year after receiving tips on the deaths. Officials didn't disclose them and later provided the total number of deaths for this calendar year instead.

The Air Force's refusal to get into specifics on how many deaths they suspect to be suicide stems from a desire to prevent more suicides, officials said.

"Research has found certain practices, such as aggrandizing suicide events or publicizing intimate details about the death, are associated with suicide clusters, suicide contagion, and increased suicide rates," Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said.

Suicide contagion is a theory observed by scientists that when one person dies by suicide, others in close proximity or in the same community may be at an elevated risk of self-harm or suicide, according to the National Institutes of Health. It can also occur through media reports, and many journalistic organizations, including Military.com, follow guidelines such as not sharing too many personal details of the incident and also point to resources for readers.

In conversations with Military.com, Stefanek pointed to a Defense Department memo on suicide prevention, originally drafted in 2017, that she said backed up this position. Stefanek also noted that the Air Force follows the memo's requirements to report servicewide data to the Pentagon.

While the memo does say that some messages could increase suicide risk, it also notes that the right kind of messaging can decrease it as well.

The memo says that military officials should "ensure that there is no public comment on the specific circumstances surrounding the death, such as the manner used in the suicide, or speculation as to the reasons for the suicide." It does not include any prohibition on disclosing that a suicide is suspected or has occurred.

A defense spokesman said that standardized data is "extremely important" when reporting suicide rates and that the Pentagon's Defense Suicide Prevention Program is the official release authority for the data.

This Pentagon-wide data reveals that the problem before the military is significant and progress is almost nonexistent. The militarywide totals of suicides across all branches among active-duty troops have largely been steadily climbing in the last seven years.

In 2016, 280 service members killed themselves, according to Pentagon figures. That climbed to 383 in 2020 before falling slightly, 327, in 2021. Since then, suicides have been on the rise again, and the military had its second deadliest quarter this year -- 94 suicides -- since 2016.

The centralized collection and reporting enables official Pentagon-wide suicide totals. But it also makes it difficult to spot clusters or identify particularly troublesome units or installations, especially if local commanders refuse to disclose deaths by suicide.

Despite Tinker's reluctance, other services have readily confirmed instances of suicide -- especially clusters of the deaths -- when asked by Military.com and other outlets.

The Army, for a time, was proactively reporting instances of soldier suicide on a case-by-case basis. The result was the realization in November 2022 that leaders in Alaska were struggling with a rash of suicides in the state.

Local Army leaders began advocating for more resources behind the scenes to senior service leadership and to Congress. But some officials, like the 11th Airborne Division commander, were also particularly open with Military.com about needing more resources to deal with the problem.

Meanwhile, the Navy has also regularly confirmed instances of suicide at specific units, as well.

In April, when Military.com inquired about reports of an outbreak of suicides aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington following social media posts, the Navy immediately confirmed the deaths -- including that some were "suspected suicides."

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.

When Military.com provided several specific examples of potential suicide deaths from social media and details provided through individuals connected to Tinker Air Force Base, the Air Force still declined to comment or address those claims directly.

One such Aug. 20 post on the Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page, a spot where insider information from airmen is shared and leaked, detailed units and some suspected suicide numbers. The post alleged that the command at the base initially did not respond to one death adequately.

"When the first one occurred, command did the bare minimum of what was expected of them," the post read. "A plaque was ordered to send to the family and that was essentially it. The [sic] move on and continue normal ops was trumpeted from leadership. Then just over two weeks later the next suicide occurred."

Tinker Air Force Base and Department of the Air Force public affairs officials did not comment on the details of that post when asked by Military.com.

"We are deeply saddened by the losses we have experienced at Tinker Air Force Base," Col. Abby Ruscetta, Tinker installation commander, said in an emailed statement. "Our leadership team consistently stresses the importance of providing helping resources and each airmen understands there is strength for asking for help. We are working across the base as our airmen are going through the grieving process with the loss of their teammates, friends and wingmen."

In an emailed statement, Tinker Air Force Base spokeswoman Kimberly Woodruff said the installation provides grief counseling through chaplains, mental health programs, Family Readiness Centers and peer-to-peer programs.

"Tinker affected units have established commander all-calls, helping agency support, down time, and individual one-on-one support, as necessary," an emailed statement said.

In the case of both Alaska and the USS George Washington, reporting of the suicide clusters led to substantive changes in the lives of junior enlisted.

The Navy moved sailors off the carrier that was still a construction site -- despite initially saying they were unable to do so. Meanwhile, in Alaska, the Army made moves to make the duty station more voluntary and expanded the mental health resources available to soldiers.

Even amid improvements, suicide remains a deep and troubling concern at other military installations, with reports of new deaths coming regularly. A Military.com reporter confirmed with the Army Thursday that there were three suspected suicides within the last two weeks at Fort Cavazos in Texas.

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.

-- Steve Beynon contributed to this report.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Air Force Won't Disclose Causes of 17 Deaths at Tinker Air Force Base This Year

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