TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --
Tinker Air Force Base leaders recently sat down with local community members and health officials Sept. 4 at the Midwest City Chamber of Commerce to discuss suicide and share ideas to prevent it.
Col. Paul Filcek, 72nd Air Base Wing and Tinker installation commander, said the community event was the result of a directive from Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein, who called for all wings to hold a Resilience Tactical Pause during September. The purpose of the RTP is to increase Airmen connectedness and sense of purpose to increase unit cohesion, trust and confidence in command teams.
The wing culminated its RTP on Sept. 4 with several resiliency sessions for employees. Filcek discussed the reason for the pause during the community dinner that evening.
“Suicide is killing Airmen,” Filcek told the crowd, adding that he wasn’t distinguishing between those who wear a uniform and those who don’t when talking about Airmen. “It’s killing both. That’s an alarming prospect.” In Air Force Materiel Command, all suicides this year have been civilians.
Maj. Denise Zona, 72nd Medical Group Mental Health Flight commander, said the top three common denominators among military members who die by suicide are relationship issues, financial stressors and legal problems.
“That relationship element is front and center,” the major said. “The question I was trained to ask, ‘If you got a flat tire, who are you going to call?’ Relationships do not imply romantic relationships; they are the connections we make with others.”
It’s easier to be isolated today than it was just 10 years ago, said Shelby Rowe, Suicide Prevention Program manager with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. “That isolation is poison,” she added.
Teresa Deck, clinical director with the non-profit Green Shoe Foundation, agreed.
“It’s important that you have connectedness with someone,” Deck said. “They are reaching out for a relationship when they call , when they don’t have anyone else.”
Juanita Celie, suicide prevention coordinator with the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, said people who have a support network are more apt to ask for help when they encounter tough times.
“We are always trying to encourage people to be vulnerable and reach out and make that connection. Whether it’s through 2-1-1 or the National Veterans Crisis Line or a wingman, whomever is in your corner,” Ceile said.
It is important for leaders to be part of their subordinates’ support network. Chief Master Sgt. Melissa Erb, 72nd Air Base Wing command chief, said “intrusive leadership” is part of the supervisory task she gives young Airmen entering their first leadership role.
“Go learn about your Airmen,” she said. “You have to know enough about them to know there is something wrong with them. Because if you don’t know what their back story is, you will never connect and you will never have any level of trust with your Airmen because they don’t see you as someone they can come to in a time of crisis.”
Filcek said it all boils down to caring for people. That doesn’t mean bringing donuts on Fridays or simply remembering someone’s birthday.
“Those don’t prove that you care,” he said. “It’s about coming through for someone in the clutch, when it’s inconvenient for you. Look for those opportunities. Just listen to one person one day. They will remember how you made them feel. If we start to ingrain that in our culture, these interactions and relationships, I think we will start winning.”
There are many resources available for those needing help. To talk to someone on base, call Tinker’s Mental Health Clinic at 582-6603 or the base chapel at 734-2111. Heartline, a free 24-hour phone service, can be reached by calling 2-1-1 or texting 8989211. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number is 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).
For more information, visit https://www.resilience.af.mil/.