Deaths at Minot AFB inspire call to action
In a story published in the Monday edition of The Minot Daily News regarding the deaths of three airmen at Minot Air Force Base in October, it was asserted by a member of the public that the deaths were suicides. The cause of death of the three airmen has not been verified or reported at this time and all three incidents are still being investigated, according to Minot Air Force Base officials.
A conversation around suicide and mental health in the military was jumpstarted in the Minot community last week after a local military spouse began holding signs on the Broadway Bridge.
Lisa Hermosillo set herself up on the bridge for three days in remembrance of three airmen from Minot Air Force Base who took their lives in October. Hermosillo said she hoped to spread more awareness on the issue and overcome the stigma demotivating some from getting help.
“I’m bridging the gap between mental health and suicide. How can we reduce the rate of this happening?” Hermosillo said. “That’s why I wanted to do this now. Some of them are thousands of miles away from home. The holidays are such a vulnerable time for people, where we have some of the highest rates of suicide in general. We lose more servicemembers to suicide than combat alone. That’s the real war here on American soil – with suicide and mental health, and the barriers that airmen face just getting help. That needs to change.”
In a prepared statement, Minot AFB leadership confirmed the loss of the airmen but that each incident was still actively being investigated. Leadership stated the base is working to provide extensive mental health and resilience resources to those who are struggling in the wake of the airmen’s deaths.
“This is not a topic that leadership teams take lightly and there is considerable effort put in to prevent and respond to these tragedies,” Col. Daniel Hoadley, commander of the 5th Bomb Wing said in the statement. “There are a variety of resources in place to provide support systems for our airmen and families in times of need. We worked with higher headquarters to make extra chaplains, counselors and mental health professionals available to support those who are grieving. Over the last year we have also grown the Resiliency Training Assistant program to provide in-unit, peer-to-peer support for incidents just like this.”
According to a 2016 report by the Aircrew Health and Performance Division of the United States Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, Air Force personnel who are assessed for mental health disorders can find themselves reassigned to less stressful tasks while they are treated and evaluated. Additional waivers can be granted to allow personnel receiving medication and counseling to regain flight status and be recertified in the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP) if they have been symptom-free for a period of six to 12 months, depending on their diagnosis.
The Department of Defense uses PRP to assess and certify those who have access to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. According to the report, airmen can be discharged completely if their symptoms have not abated, but it stated that most who seek treatment typically are granted waivers.
Hermosillo believes airmen are demotivated from sharing their struggles with superiors and peers out of fear of being marginalized and isolated.
“When they say they are hurting and they’re having problems, they get their PRP taken down. They can’t go out in the field and they have duties stripped from them. They have guys scrubbing the floors. They’re being given menial responsibilities that make them feel shame. Now the other airmen have to pick up the rest of the work. That’s why people don’t say anything. ‘I don’t want to cause my co-workers or buddies any extra stress,'” Hermosillo said. “They feel isolated. These stories are all around us. It’s a tough conversation, but it needs to happen.”
The issue was raised by Hermosillo at a town hall held on Nov. 15 at the Jimmy Doolittle Center on base led by Hoadley, 91st Missile Wing commander Col. Kenneth McGhee and Minot Mayor Tom Ross. Ross said the city was in solidarity with the struggles of Minot AFB, as the city police department has experienced loss from suicide as well in the last year.
However, Hermosillo felt there was a lack of communication regarding October’s suicides between not only the base and the community, but even with Air Force personnel.
“They said they wanted to respect the families and didn’t want too much information getting out. I heard it because airmen were changing their profile pictures on Facebook to honor the person who died,” Hermosillo said. “Some airmen reached out to me saying they didn’t even know deaths had happened until they saw a TikTok I made. How do we come together as a base and community if the problem is going to be isolated?”
Minot AFB Public Affairs said a variety of measures are being implemented through the activation of the Disaster Mental Health program to assemble a variety of agencies to support airmen and their families. Minot AFB has 162 Resiliency Training Assistants and 31 Master Resiliency Trainers along with several in-person Military and Family Life counselors, one of whom is currently embedded with the squadrons affected by the losses.
“The loss of any airman affects us as a team,” McGhee said in the statement. “We aim to respect the privacy and care of our members and their families in the wake of these events, and we must continue to advocate for various support systems through the Air Force and the local community to ensure that those who need to seek help are able to do so.”