Dear Air Force: You Are Missing the Point on Suicide Prevention

Bracelets, labeled with the message, "You Got This. We Got You," are handed out to participants during the Dragon March on Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, Sept. 13, 2019. (U.S. Air Force/Kemberly Groue)
Bracelets, labeled with the message, "You Got This. We Got You," are handed out to participants during the Dragon March on Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, Sept. 13, 2019. (U.S. Air Force/Kemberly Groue)

Amanda Huffman is a military spouse and veteran who served in the Air Force for six years as a civil engineer, including a deployment to Afghanistan. She is the host and creator of the Women of the Military Podcast, sharing the stories of women who have served or continue to serve in the military. You can learn more at her blog, Airman to Mom.

Dear Air Force Leaders --

I took the survey from your Invisible Wound Initiative, which was created to help airmen and families sort through the psychological burdens of service, including suicide. When I was done, I was very disappointed in you.

The survey asked me over and over whether I know how my husband's invisible wounds could impact his career. But it never asked how it could impact me or our home life. Instead, it put the burden on me to understand or see his PTSD and never addressed the problems with the Air Force's current PTSD support system.

The military's philosophy of "Mission First, People Always" leads to the mission taking precedence and the people becoming an afterthought. When you focus so deeply on the mission and forget about the people, you end up with a survey that forgets about both the airmen behind the injuries and their families.

I am a veteran and a spouse. As someone who suffered from her own PTSD issues, the one place I didn't have a hard time was at work. Maybe it was because I knew the right answers to say, and it was easy to stay focused on my job. But my home life was unpredictable, and life situations would pop up and bring me right back to Afghanistan.

Is whether an airman's PTSD is hurting the mission really the most-needed focus?

Even if it is, identifying the real depth of PTSD problems in the midst of long absences and TDYs when my husband isn't even at home, and then knowing the local resources to address it after so many moves, are separate issues.

In the last year, I have called at midnight people I barely know so I can take my son to the hospital without waking my second child. I have worked to make friends and build support. I have driven on a 12-plus-hour road trip alone with my kids to have a chance to attend a conference. And it's fine. It is a part of military life, and I'm making it work for me and my family. But the military has already asked so much of me, and now I feel like it is asking for even more.

The truth is that some days, when he is gone, we are just surviving. With so many absences, however, I may not even be able to see whether my spouse is slowly changing and heading toward a need for help. My husband wasn't the one who helped me find help with my PTSD struggles. He didn't know what was going on inside of me and in my struggle, and I didn't even have words to express what was wrong. How can the Air Force expect spouses to see what can't be seen?

Even if we could, why has the Air Force not done anything to fix the support systems currently in place?

People are not dying by suicide because they don't know how to get help. As a former airman, I knew what resources were available to me, and I even tried to use them. Even with a lingering fear that saying something was wrong might lead to a negative impact on my career, I went to the Airman Family Readiness Center after my deployment. But instead of receiving help, I was told I was fine. I just needed time to adjust.

That experience led me to not tell anyone in the military what I was going through. I knew something was wrong, but I had been told I was fine. Wasn't I fine? And after spending more than a year working through my deployment and its effects, I know that I was right in my own assessment. Time wouldn't help; I needed help in my transition home from war.

I never want anyone else to go through what I experienced over that year. Instead of helping me, the AFRC was one of the biggest blocks to my successful homecoming.

The Air Force is failing its people in so many ways and, instead of actually helping, simply telling military spouses to do one more thing. Airmen are dying at an alarming rate because of suicide.

But the unfortunate truth is that the focus has always been on the mission and not the people. And that is something that needs to change.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

Keep Up with the Ins and Outs of Military Life

For the latest military news and tips on military family benefits and more, sign up for a free Military.com membership and have the information you need delivered directly to your inbox.

Show Full Article