Air Force Investigating Death of Airman Who Set Himself on Fire as Gaza Protest, Chief of Staff Says

Demonstrators gather during a vigil outside the Israeli Embassy, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in Washington, a day after an active-duty member of the U.S. Air Force died after he set himself ablaze there.
Demonstrators gather during a vigil outside the Israeli Embassy, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in Washington, a day after an active-duty member of the U.S. Air Force died after he set himself ablaze there. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo)

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin said Wednesday that the service is investigating the suicide of an airman who set himself on fire in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., this week to protest ongoing violence in Gaza.

Meanwhile, the Department of the Air Force told that it is advocating for airmen to seek mental health resources if they need them following the death, which made front-page news across the country. The service, along with the rest of the military, has long grappled with suicide among the rank and file, with a new policy meant to get troops faster mental health treatment.

Senior Airman Aaron Bushnell, 25, a cyber defense operations specialist assigned to the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Fort Meade in Maryland, recorded a video of himself on Sunday walking up to the embassy in uniform, dousing himself with fuel and setting himself on fire. He later died from the injuries.

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"We have about 100 or so suicides per year, and every year we try to get after, how do we reduce this?” said Allvin, who was speaking at the Brookings Institution think tank in D.C. "So, right now, where we are in that case is, understanding that has a lot of political fervor attached to it, this is just one of our airmen that we lost.

"And we're looking after family, looking at the unit and really trying to understand if there's any context behind this, what lessons can be learned, but it's really about the individual that we lost," he said.

The death has become entangled in the public divisions over the Israel-Hamas war, sparking an anti-war vigil in front of the embassy and inspiring protesters. In the video, Bushnell says he is about to engage in an "extreme act of protest" and screams "free Palestine" repeatedly before collapsing to the ground, engulfed in flames.

During his appearance Wednesday, Allvin was interrupted by several activists and protesters who interjected about Bushnell and called for an end to the Israel-Hamas war.

"Say his name, Aaron Bushnell!" one activist shouted. "Cease-fire now," another yelled, according to footage provided to from someone involved in the protest. Many of the protesters were escorted out of the room while they shouted their remarks.

Allvin did not address the activists directly.

"For our Air Force, we look at this as, whether it was politically motivated or other, we lost one of ours," Allvin said. "And so, any suicide, whether by political protest or by resiliency issues or wherever it is, is a tragedy and, as we're looking at wherever the rationale might be, there's a standard investigation process we go through that and we look at that to make sure we understand everything about what happened."

Brooke Rohner, one of the activists who was escorted from Allvin's discussion at Brookings, told that she was dismayed at how the service has responded to Bushnell's death.

"We've been disappointed by the response of Air Force leadership in honoring Aaron. Regardless of whether or not they agree with his political stance or form of protest, he dedicated several years to service and should be honored at the highest degree," Rohner told "It's a shame they have not done better."

Bushnell was assigned to the wing at Fort Meade and was a member of the 531st Intelligence Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas. He had been on active duty since May 2020.

"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 Monday. "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."

Department of the Air Force spokeswoman Rose Riley told that the 531st Intelligence Squadron in San Antonio, whose members knew and worked with Bushnell, held a commander's call Monday to inform the squadron of his death, offering to "connect their airmen with support resources."

She added that resiliency teams "will continue to engage and support their airmen to ensure awareness of and access to helping resources."

Last year, the Air Force and Space Force implemented resources for the Brandon Act, which was signed into law in December 2021 after Brandon Caserta, a 21-year-old sailor, died by suicide. It updated a wide variety of regulations allowing troops to voluntarily request an immediate mental health referral from a commander or supervisor with a rank of E-6 or above.

"The Department of the Air Force encourages a culture that promotes help-seeking behavior and intervening when an airman or Guardian recognizes signs of distress in another," Riley said. "All airmen and Guardians should actively engage in building connected communities, which includes sharing their views and concerns with leadership and peers."

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.

Bushnell's protest is the second act of self-immolation related to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, which has led to massive casualties in the Gaza Strip. Israel declared war in October following a bloody terrorist attack by Hamas and has since pummeled Gaza, creating a humanitarian crisis for residents there.

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, The Associated Press reported.

Service members or veterans experiencing a mental health crisis or their loved ones can call the Veterans Crisis Line 24/7 at 988, Press 1. Help also is available online at, or by texting 838255.

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

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