Air Force Identifies 25-Year-Old Cyber Specialist as Airman Who Set Himself on Fire in Front of DC Embassy

Demonstrators light candles during a vigil outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
Demonstrators light candles during a vigil outside the Israeli Embassy, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in Washington. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo)

The Air Force on Tuesday identified the airman who died after setting himself on fire as an extreme act of protest in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Senior Airman Aaron Bushnell, of Whitman, Massachusetts, walked up to the embassy on Sunday afternoon, doused himself with accelerant and lit his Air Force uniform on fire. He was 25 years old and had been on active duty since May 2020, according to the service.

Bushnell was a cyber defense operations specialist with the 531st Intelligence Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. He was assigned to the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Fort Meade in Maryland.

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"When a tragedy like this occurs, every member of the Air Force feels it," Col. Celina Noyes, the 70th ISRW commander, said in an emailed statement. "We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Senior Airman Bushnell. Our thoughts and prayers are with them, and we ask that you respect their privacy during this difficult time."

Bushnell recorded the self-immolation, and a video of it was posted online. In it, the uniformed service member calmly walks to the front of the embassy and says he is about to engage in an "extreme act of protest." He then dumps an accelerant on himself from a water bottle and pulls out a lighter, setting himself on fire. He screamed "free Palestine" repeatedly before collapsing to the ground, engulfed in flames.

The Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department said Sunday on X, formerly known as Twitter, that officers responded to the embassy around 1 p.m. local time "to assist the United States Secret Service after an individual set themselves on fire in front of an embassy in the block."

In the video, armed guards run up to Bushnell with weapons drawn, and one person brings a fire extinguisher to put out the flames. D.C. police dispatched an explosive ordnance disposal team to search a suspicious vehicle at the scene, but it was cleared Sunday evening after no hazardous materials were found, the police said on X.

The Washington Post reported Monday that Bushnell was raised in a religious compound in Orleans, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod called "The Community of Jesus," which has faced allegations of inappropriate behavior in the past.

Those who knew Bushnell also told the Post the young airman expressed dissatisfaction with the U.S. role in the Israel-Hamas War and had considered leaving the military early.

Bushnell had pre-registered for an upcoming term at Southern New Hampshire University that was slated to start next week, WMUR News in New Hampshire reported. He enrolled online at the school in 2023, taking classes from August through October of last year toward a computer science degree, the news station added.

Bushnell's protest is the second act of self-immolation related to the ongoing Israel and Hamas war, which has led to massive casualties in the Gaza Strip.

In December, a protester set themselves on fire outside an Israeli Consulate in Atlanta, Georgia. A Palestinian flag found at the scene was part of the protest, Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said, according to The Associated Press.

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