Editor's note: This story includes discussion of suicidal ideation and details of a suicide note.
A grieving father who lost his son -- an airman at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico -- to suicide this month has written an open letter to the service's leadership, as well as the Joint Chiefs chairman and defense secretary, pleading for the military to confront alarming numbers of suicides within the ranks.
Sean Stevenson said in the Nov. 22 letter that his son, 24-year-old Senior Airman Sean Ryan Stevenson, died Nov. 1 after the Air Force "let him down to the point he became broken and alone."
He also included the text of his son's suicide note "found on his computer by officials investigating his death" in which the airman detailed a logistical nightmare of trying to go to his next duty station in Japan and ultimately having to be called back, sidelining a lifelong dream of service in the Air Force.
"I'm sorry, I love you all and I'm terribly sorry for this selfish decision," the airman wrote. "But I can't deal with it anymore. I loved the Air Force since I was a kid, and all I ever wanted to do in life was be in the Air Force. Over the past year, I've learned just how little the Air Force cares about me, despite how much I threw into it."
Stevenson's father, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant with more than 30 years of service, told Military.com in a phone interview Tuesday that he decided to release his son's final words because he believes they were intended for the military to see.
"The Air Force saw fit to go ahead and forward me his final words," Stevenson's father said. "After reading it and rereading it again, I got physically sick. I cried. I prayed. I shared it with my bride and then I slept on it. By the morning, I had a clear idea that that letter wasn't written to me and it wasn't written to his mother, it was written to our most senior leaders, it was written to the people that could have made a difference, it was written to the people that are responsible for the care and feeding of our most junior people, and I realized I'd be remiss if I didn't share it."
The letter was posted to Reddit, and it has since received thousands of interactions, comments and reposts on various subreddits.
The Air Force did not comment on any of the specifics in the open letter or on Stevenson's manner of death, stating that details are still under investigation.
An Air Force spokesperson said a resilience team was made available for airmen on the base southwest of Amarillo, including additional social workers, counselors, a chaplain and an operational psychologist, in addition to the base's existing medical group and mental health clinic.
The Air Force -- active-duty, reserve and Guard -- saw 91 suicides last year, according to the latest quarterly numbers released by the Department of Defense. There were 72 suicides in 2021 and 109 in 2020.
In the first two quarters of 2023, the latest data available, the Air Force had 46 deaths by suicide.
Sean Ryan Stevenson was a "tactical systems operator assigned as aircrew aboard the Air Force Special Operations Command U-28A 'Draco' intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft," according to an obituary posted by his family members online.
He had more than 800 combat flying hours over Afghanistan and Somalia. He joined the "family business" in 2017 when he joined the Air Force, the obituary said.
"Our thoughts, prayers, and condolences are with Sean's family, friends and teammates during this time," Col. Jeremy Bergin, the commander of the 27th Special Operations Wing, said in an emailed statement to Military.com. "Sean was a hard-working airman that we had the pleasure of serving with. We recognize the impact of this loss on his family, his friends and his military family. We will continue to ensure our airmen have access to the resources necessary to maintain their resiliency as they serve our nation."
According to the latest annual suicide report, released last month, the number of troop suicide deaths throughout the active-duty force, National Guard and reserves dropped from 524 in 2021 to 492 in 2022, the department said. For active-duty service members specifically, the rate increased slightly last year to 331, up from 328 in 2021.
Military suicide rates, which are measured per 100,000, largely reflect trends seen in the general U.S. population. For both populations, those most at risk of suicide are men -- almost 93% of military suicides in 2022 were enlisted men.
Recently, there has been a host of suicide prevention efforts led by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The latest push came as the result of a 2022 department suicide prevention review board, after which the Defense Department committed to improving accessibility of mental health care services, as well as the safe storage of firearms.
"Even one suicide is too many," Austin said in a statement last month. "We have much more work to do to reduce suicide across our force, and owe it to our service members and our military families to provide the best possible care; to identify risk factors and spot warning signs; and to eliminate the tired, old stigmas around seeking help."
Some troops and spouses have historically avoided seeking mental health assistance for fear of inadvertent career consequences, though the Defense Department has worked toward cultural change in part by recently implementing the Brandon Act, which allows a service member to self-refer for in-depth mental health assessments.
But Stevenson's father believes more needs to be done. He invited all the Air Force's top brass, as well as Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Charles "C.Q." Brown, to a memorial service being held at Cannon Air Force Base on Dec. 7.
"This invitation is not for you to eulogize my son, as the words of no person, regardless of how great and powerful they might be, would ever change the high regard I hold for my beloved boy," Stevenson's father wrote in his open letter. "Rather, this invitation is for you to stand by the side of a grieving family and demonstrate the strong, visible and tangible leadership the members of our nation's military desperately require to eradicate the horrific epidemic of military suicide that plagues the Department of Defense."
In the weeks since his son's passing, the retired Air Force chief master sergeant told Military.com he's grappled with everything from sorrow to doubt about losing his boy. It wasn't an easy choice to release his words, and his son's note, to the public, he said.
But Stevenson said he wants there to be a change, and he wants to put the military's top leaders on notice.
"I'm looking for real meaningful change, so no other mom and no other dad have to go through this," he said. "So that no other mom howls the way my wife howled when she got the horrible news."
Veterans and service members experiencing a mental health emergency can call the Veteran Crisis Line, 988, and press 1. Help also is available by text, 838255, and via chat at VeteransCrisisLine.net.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on X @TomNovelly.