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Support systems a factor in preventing suicides

Air Force's pre-deployment screening process does its best to ensure Airmen are medically prepared to deploy. Air Force Reserve Command is making sure the influx of Citizen Airmen who are scheduled to deploy to various locations this summer are taken care of the best they can. (U.S. Air Force file photo/Master Sgt. Kevin Wallace)

Air Force's pre-deployment screening process does its best to ensure Airmen are medically prepared to deploy. Air Force Reserve Command is making sure the influx of Citizen Airmen who are scheduled to deploy to various locations this summer are taken care of the best they can. (U.S. Air Force file photo/Master Sgt. Kevin Wallace)

MCCHORD FIELD, Wash -- Recent studies indicate service members are less likely to commit suicide due to their deployment experiences, but the odds increase upon separation from service.

Are these odds the same among Air Force reservists who spend most of their time as civilians?

When it comes to suicides, risk factors involving drinking and substance abuse, relationship and marriage, disciplinary (UCMJ and legal) action, dishonorable discharges from the military, too little or too strong a faith, aren't included in these findings, said Carl Supplee, 446th Force Support Squadron, Airmen & Family Readiness director. However, they're significant amid reservists.

During his stretch as wing chaplain, Supplee said he observed Citizen Airmen behaviors pre-, during, and post-deployment, and discovered links to the deployments and suicides and suicidal behavior.

"Based strictly on the numbers, all suicides are up for the Guard, Reserve, and active-duty, and are linked to deployments."

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Pierre Allegre, 446th Airlift Wing chaplain, and Supplee said the relationships Citizen Airmen have with their hometowns is another piece that affects them, as most of them are permanent residents. They also said being responsible for a civilian profession in addition to their military duties and family commitments is an extra stressor.

"Guard and Reserve are more reflective of civilian society," said Allegre, who has a congregation in Lacey, Washington, many of whom are service members. "Deployments can be more disruptive to their lives, since they always have to transition back to being a civilian upon coming home, which brings with it its own set of challenges."

"If the Guard and Reserve are a reflection of their communities, which they are, then the suicide rates will continue to increase based on this added dimension," Supplee said.

However, the collective theme essential to Reserve suicide prevention and good mental health is having a support group in place, within their family, community, or unit, according to Jeanne Morrow, 446th AW director of Psychological Health.

"The common element I notice with Airmen suicides is the lack of a support system."

This applies before, during, and after the deployment.

"I find that most military members who are 'together' enough to deploy are generally less prone to suicidal ideation (thoughts) than those who don't have such purpose or meaning in their lives," Allegre said. "Amongst the (Reservists) I've counseled regarding suicidal (consideration) over the last five years, the vast majority had stress and dysfunction that had nothing to do with deployments or their military life. In fact, for many the best thing they have going for them is typically their military connection," he added.

Morrow said the Air Force's pre-deployment screening process does its best to ensure Airmen are medically prepared to deploy.

"Reservists complete a health assessment that asks about levels of stress or recent concerns so they may be deemed deployable," she said. "Assuming service members answer the questions honestly, if they are in current crisis, they might not be deployed. Thus, we're going to strive to deploy Reservists who are 'fit' for that mission."

Allegre said Air Force Reserve Command is making sure the influx of Citizen Airmen who are scheduled to deploy to various locations this summer are taken care of the best they can.

"I received (resources) to support our increased deployment numbers," he said. "This is AFRC's effort in trying to mitigate the stresses of deployments on reservists, and their families by providing more chaplain availability."

Allegre, Morrow, and Supplee agreed reservists should spend as much time with groups of people who'll listen them, or who can relate to their experiences.

"It makes all the difference," Morrow said.

All three are certified counselors willing to listen in confidentiality, and provide resources for those who need them.