Sioux City, Iowa --
Wade Kuehl, Director of Psychological Health at the Iowa Air National Guard’s 185th Air Refueling Wing in Sioux City, Iowa wants Airmen to check on their Wingman. According to Kuehl, connectedness and belonging are some of the most powerful tools in building a resilient culture.
“It’s important that our members feel like they matter and that they have supportive people in their lives.” Kuehl commented. “In the military, it’s essential that members have support from both their wingmen and from their leadership.”
The U.S. Department of Defense observes September annually as Suicide Prevention Month. Each year extra emphasis is placed on suicide prevention, beyond that however the Air Force continuously develops strategies for reducing suicides in the military.
Recently, United States Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein ordered a “Resilience Tactical Pause” to be completed by every unit in the Air Force prior to the end of 2019. Kuehl said the 185th ARW will be conducting their Resilience Tactical Pause during the November training weekend.
According to an annual report the Air National Guard said that 17 Airmen had died by suicide and 30 had reported suicide attempts in 2018. According to the report suicide rates had increased from the precious year when 12 deaths by suicide and 28 attempts reported. Air Force wide, as of the end of July 2019, the Air Force reported that 78 wingmen had killed themselves.
“We lose more Airmen to suicide than to any other cause of death”, said Kuehl. “Think about that, we lose more of our Air Force brothers and sisters to suicide than we lose to combat, or any other cause of death.”
In a recent letter addressed to all Airmen, General Goldfein, asked leaders and Airmen to assess how their fellow Airmen view themselves, “Do they view themselves as a burden or blessing? We are entrusted with their care we can’t let them go from hopeful to hopeless,” Goldfine appealed.
Kuehl said hope and resiliency are closely connected. He described resiliency as the ability to recover or even grow in the face of adversity and stress. He says resiliency and connectedness are important components of suicide prevention, but suicide is a very complex problem.
According to Kuehl different people have different paths to suicide. He says there are many contributing factors, but there are some common themes for most people who die by suicide.
“Those who die by suicide tend to be people who have lost all hope and don’t see any other way out of their painful existence.” Kuehl stated. “They often feel they are a burden to other people, and that everyone would be better off if they were no longer alive.”
Kuehl believes that most Airmen who are struggling with emotional pain and considering suicide could be helped and potentially saved if they sought and accepted help.
“I’m not blaming anyone, but there are real barriers to care for people struggling with emotional pain and stress, especially in the military,” Kuehl emphasized.
Kuehl added that fear and stigma are often two significant barriers that affect whether people will ask for help.
He said there is both internal and external stigma attached to seeking help. According to Kuehl external stigma has to do with a person’s beliefs and attitudes about society. For example, an Airman might worry about losing their job or being passed up for a promotion for seeking mental health care.
According to Kuehl Internal stigma is really about a person’s own beliefs and attitudes about seeking mental health.
“An airman might think that only weak or crazy people seek mental health care,” Kuehl added.
Kuehl stated that Airmen should remember that they are human beings first and foremost, and that no one is immune from things like depression, anxiety, sleep problems, trauma, and relationship problems. Kuehl says these factors, in addition to alcohol abuse are some of the most common contributors to suicidal thoughts in the military.
According to Kuehl the Air National Guard has put a lot of effort into making sure help is available to those who seek it. He noted that members of the 185th ARW have access to chaplain services including a full time Chaplain, Major Steve Peters; Gary Schmidt from Airmen and Family Readiness; Katie Perez who works as the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator; and himself as the Director of Psychological Health.
Kuehl noted that he and the rest of the wing care team can also help members get connected to outside services through places like the Vet Center and Military One Source, as well as other services in the community.
“The services and resources are there. We just have to help our members get past the barriers and help them get connected to the right service for them”, Kuehl added.
Kuehl said military services have evolved in recent years in how it deals with mental health. He said that historically some military members have been separated due to mental health issues. But now he said it’s very unlikely when the service member seeks help.
“What we’re finding is that it’s best for members to seek help earlier rather than later. They are better off getting help than not, and many people in the military get professional help without any negative consequences. We have to get the facts out there and bust the old myths,” Kuehl said.
According to Kuehl the “Wingman” concept emphasizes connectedness.
“We teach our members to be good Wingmen. We don’t stand on the sidelines and let bad things happen. We support each other and lift each other up,” Kuehl reiterated, when talking about the importance of getting involved and intervening when necessary.
Kuehl says members of the 185th are taught to utilize the Ask, Care, and Escort or ACE method to help mitigate suicide risk. Kuehl says when a wingman is struggling it is important to ask what is causing the pain. Kuehl admits it can be a difficult task but he says it is important to be brave enough to ask the hard questions. He says it is important to be frank and ask if the person is thinking about suicide.
According to Kuehl it is a myth that asking people about suicide encourages them to think about it. Rather, he says that asking shows that the other person that they are cared about. He added that listening is part of caring, and that it’s especially important to listen with judgement.
Kuehl said an action that anyone can take is to be prepared to escort someone to safety if they appear to be in danger due to suicidal thoughts.
“It could be a member of the Care Team, a Squadron leader, a doctor, or in high risk situations it may even be necessary to help an Airman get to a hospital for safety,” Kuehl said.
Kuehl added that it’s also important to make sure guns, lethal medications, or other dangerous items are removed from the environment of someone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts. Kuehl reiterated that help is available and said that people can regularly get through very difficult times.
“People can handle incredibly painful events,” Kuehl said when talking about how people recover from terrible things.
“It doesn’t always seem like it in the midst of misery, but there is hope. We have to persevere through the painful times, and sometimes that requires the help of others. It’s not weakness to ask for help,” Kuehl emphasized, “It’s a sign of bravery and strength.”
Editor’s note: Members of the 185th Air Refueling Wing Care Team can be contacted any time day or night.
185th ARW Care Team
Steve Peters, Chaplain phone (712) 202-4752
Katie Perez, SARC phone (712) 454-4827
Gary Schmidt, AFRPM phone (712) 899-1307
Wade Kuehl, DPH phone (712) 454-9856
National Suicide Hotline 800-273-TALK (8255)