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388th Fighter Wing emphasizes connection during tactical pause

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – Hill’s 388th Fighter Wing took a brief pause in operations Thursday to address a critical issue. Suicide.

While the wing hasn’t suffered any recent suicides, the day was part of an Air Force-wide effort to reach out to every Airmen, to listen, and to provide resources to those in need.

The service has lost 78 Airmen to suicide in 2019, but it’s not just a military issue. Utah has the fifth-highest suicide rate in the nation, with nearly 600 suicides per year on average, and another 4,500 attempts, according to the Utah Department of Health.

“This isn’t just another briefing. This a chance for us to look each other in the eyes and see how we’re doing,” said Col. Steven Behmer, 388th Fighter Wing commander. “I’ll be honest, the suicide rate is what brought this day about, but I don’t want this day to be about suicide and death. I want this day to be about what combats those things – hope and living life together.”

During the day, the wing broke up into small groups and shared stories, life experiences, and had a chance to provide input into what things may help promote more relationship and connection in the workplace, something leadership sees as key to providing support in times of trouble.

“Not all Airmen are at the point where they need professional or mental health in dealing with some of the challenges that they face,” said Chief Master Sgt. of The Air Force Kaleth O. Wright in a video announcing the pause. “Sometimes they just need to know that you actually care about them and that you understand them and the challenges they face every single day.”

After the small groups, the chapel provided water and soft drinks and there were food trucks available for Airmen to get lunch together and hang out off of the flight line, prior to a wing-wide commander’s call.

During the commander's call, guest speaker Chief Master Sgt. Laurie Bach, the superintendent of the United States Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, shared her story of how suicide touched her life when her husband, a high-achieving, highly-educated teacher took his own life. After the suicide Bach and those close to her were left devastated and confused.

She wasn’t alone. During one small group session on Thursday, nearly everyone in the room had a personal connection to suicide.

“That’s why this is important. 78 suicides is a big number for the Air Force. But it’s not the most important number,” said Maj. Caleb Guthmann, 388th Fighter Wing director of staff. “The most important number is one. One suicide will affect many lives. One suicide is too many, and we want to be here for each other.”

EDITOR’s NOTE: If you are struggling with depression, having suicidal thoughts or just need help with a challenging life issue, please talk to a friend, family member or co-worker. Free counseling is also available through Military One Source for servicemembers or through the Employee Assistance Program for civilians.

If you have a friend, family member or co-worker who has expressed suicidal thoughts, do not dismiss it or leave them alone, immediately take them to a qualified care provider.