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South Carolina Air Force base to add days off after recent suicides

COLUMBIA, S.C. — On Friday, most of the service members of the Air Force’s 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw Air Force base in South Carolina will get a needed extra day off.

The day off comes after three airmen have died by suicide since May, according to media reports. The State newspaper in Columbia reported that coroners confirmed the manner of death in each case. In addition to the airmen who took their lives, two others have died from health complications, the newspaper reported.

The sharply rising number of suicides across the Air Force prompted Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein in early August to order every wing to take a one-day stand down to address the issue of suicide.

For Shaw, 35 miles east of Columbia, August 30 won’t be the only day off.

“As we continue this dialogue about suicide prevention across our Air Force I was thinking about the words we shared last week about how there’s no one thing that we can do that will solve this, but there’s thousands of things that we can do that will help,” Col. Derek J. O’Malley, Commander for the 20th Fighter Wing, said Wednesday on a video posted to Facebook.

The base was scheduling three days at separate times as part of its resiliency tactical pause instead of one, he said.

Shaw added Friday to the Labor Day weekend schedule, giving many airmen a four-day weekend. Another day off is scheduled for September 20.

On September 13, Shaw Air Force Base is bringing in a speaker for its mandated resiliency day and will have small group discussions.

“I know that these are small gestures, given all that’s going on in the 20th Fighter Wing, the weight of things that have happened, and all the sacrifices that you and your family make,” O’Malley said.

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright said in a video earlier this month the number of suicides so far in 2019 (78) is 28 higher for the same time period in 2018.

“We lose more airmen to suicide than any other single enemy, even more than combat,” he said.

A chart in the Department of Defense Suicide Event Report for 2017 shows that from 2015 to 2017 the Air Force had about 60 active duty suicides per year, about 10 among reservists and 12 to 21 suicides among the Air Guard.

The first report, with data from 2008, said there were 45 suspected suicides total.

The suicide rate in the general US population has been rising in recent decades, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. The rate in 2017 was 33% higher than 1999 and was the highest level since World War II.

To get help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There is also a crisis text line. For crisis support in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.

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