ABOARD A C-37 MILITARY AIRCRAFT -- Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright just wanted to get airmen talking -- to each other, friends, family -- with the service's one-day pause to break down unresolved feelings they may have buried deep inside.
Wright doesn't expect commanders at each base to draft a plan of what they believe could prevent suicide, which has plagued the service's ranks in recent months, with 78 airmen taking their own lives between Jan. 1 and July 31. But the top enlisted airman hopes the effort might help struggling airmen again feel a sense of purpose when they come into work, even if they carry baggage from their personal lives with them.
"While mental health is a part of it, I personally think a larger part of this solution is us just being good human beings," he said during a recent interview. Military.com accompanied Wright and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein on a trip to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, last week.
The Air Force in August ordered a one-day "tactical pause" that had commanders and airmen address a rise in suicides across the force. As of Aug. 1, the service had exceeded the number of suicides in all of 2018 by nearly 20 people.
Wright said suicide has become the leading cause of death in the Air Force despite airmen serving overseas in combat.
"If some initiatives [at bases] came out of that, then I think that's great. But it really wasn't designed to develop prevention initiatives," he said Oct. 9.
"All of the airmen that I've had the pleasure of meeting, connecting with and talking to who've thought about committing suicide, none of them -- not one -- pointed to a program or a process or mental health [initiative]. ... They all pointed to the thing that kept them going, and that was another person," Wright said, but added some have been in therapy programs to keep talking to someone they're comfortable with.
Wright said he's heard feedback from airmen who've felt the most hopeless during deployments, unable to connect with someone from their unit or loved ones back home.
On those occasions, help came from a friend or teammate -- sometimes even a stranger -- asking the simplest questions like, "How are you? Is there anything I can do?" Wright said.
"That's all it was -- meaningful connections," the chief said.
"It makes a big difference if you walk into a work center where you feel like, 'Hey, I'm a valued member of his team, and my supervisor, my teammates, they care about the things that I'm going through' versus, 'Hey nobody cares,'" Wright said. "This is about making airmen feel valued."
If you or someone you know needs help, the Veterans Crisis Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255, press 1. Services also are available online at www.veteranscrisisline.net or by text, 838255.
--Patricia Kime contributed to this report.