By Staff Sgt. Emily Kenney | 21st Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — “How many more [suicides] is it going to take before something other than quarterly resilience training and getting handed a suicide hotline magnet in FTAC [First Term Airman Center] comes down from the top?”
That was the question Staff Sgt. Danny Wittman, 21st Security Forces Squadron unit deployment manager said he had on his heart following the discovery that another defender had taken his own life–the eighth of 2019.
“I was annoyed and fed up,” said Wittman.
Since that heart-breaking day, June 17, 2019, Wittman’s words have become action.
The next morning, Wittman showed up to his squadron and began working to help change how suicide prevention is tackled in the Air Force.
“I didn’t want to just be that kid who goes on rants on Facebook,” said Wittman. “I reached out to [Staff Sgt. Ryan] Chilcote [another security forces member and the FTAC noncommissioned officer in charge], because he’s someone I trust on Peterson, and I reached out to Ms. [Michel] Cremeans [violence prevention integrator for Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado] and Ms. [Jessica] Schroeder [Community Support Coordinator for Peterson AFB] because they’re the subject matter experts in the area–from there we decided to create a working group to get the ball rolling.”
On June 27, 2019, Wittman and Chilcote held the first Suicide Prevention Summit on Peterson AFB. The group consisted of military and civilian personnel of all different ranks and backgrounds, from Peterson AFB, Schriever AFB, Buckley AFB and Fort Carson.
During the nearly four-hour discussion, individuals brought forward new ideas and possible solutions to aid in suicide prevention.
“The intention of this working group was to provide a place where individuals could have a voice and provide feedback and possible solutions to this heartbreaking problem,” said Cremeans. “This was a chance for those participating to truly be a part of the solution and to, at the very least, start a cultural shift here on Peterson.”
Chilcote and Wittman said one of the most beneficial aspects of the Suicide Prevention Summit was bringing in the Army’s perspective.
“The Army, and Fort Carson specifically, do amazing things when it comes to suicide prevention,” said Chilcote. “They weren’t shy at all when it came to speaking up. They have different programs that they do throughout Fort Carson that can help us, including Applied Suicide Intervention Skills training that they said they can offer to our defenders.”
Chilcote said the group offered many ideas for squadron-level solutions, to include more military and family life counselors embedded within units and mandatory mental health appointments.
They also discussed the barriers associated with seeking mental health care.
“There’s a stigma attached to mental health in our career field,” said Chilcote. “The second you say you’re having a mental health problem your guns are gone and you feel useless. We want to get rid of that stigma that seeking help makes you any less of an Airman. We also talked about bringing in more MFLCs and having mandatory in-person mental health appointments every year for security forces.”
Wittman echoed that message.
“Mental health appointments should be like any other mandatory medical appointment,” said Wittman. “Every year we have to get a physical or see dental, but why neglect our mental health?”
Wittman and Chilcote said they want to have additional Suicide Prevention Summits that will include Airmen from different Air Force specialty codes.
“The future groups will include some other career fields as well,” said Wittman. “This last summit was more security forces-centered, but I think the next will be broader and we can address why this is an issue Air Force-wide.”
When talking about an issue as sensitive as suicide, all participants agreed: having the conversation is an important first step.
“We want to let people know that it’s OK to have mental health issues and that these issues are normal,” said Wittman. “Seeking out mental health doesn’t mean you’re broken. It just means something is wrong and you need to get it fixed. We won’t see change until people are more comfortable and open with their mental health.”
This team of “doers” have caught the eye of the most senior enlisted Airman in the Air Force, and his staff.
“This is exactly the type of feedback we are looking for from our Airmen,” said Wright. “Leaders shouldn’t shy away from addressing suicide even though it can be hard to talk about. Discussions like the one Danny started can help us get to the heart of the problem, and find the solutions that our teammates deserve.”
The work being done at the 21st SW has support of the major command. According to the command’s senior enlisted member, Airmen are the foundation to making the biggest difference possible.
“We continue to invest resources and remove obstacles as an institution—all of that matters more when Airmen own their culture and take care of each other at the unit level,” said Chief Master Sgt. Roger Towberman, Air Force Space Command command chief. “When I see or hear of initiatives like what’s happening at Peterson, I know we are heading in the right direction. Passionate Airmen always make the most difference across their formation, this is what right looks like. All our Airmen should learn from this effort. When you see something wrong, make sure you call it out and get help getting after it.”
Anyone who is feeling stressed or is looking for more information on helping agencies, can visit https://www.peterson.af.mil/Got-Stress/ or contact the mental health clinic at 719-556-7804.