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Shaw Air Force Base pauses operations to address recent epidemic of suicides by airmen

Shaw AFB lockdown order lifted (copy) (copy)

Shaw Air Force Base has seen three suicides and two additional deaths in 2019. File/Staff

Second Lt. Christopher Rhoton was a rising star at Shaw Air Force Base. 

Since beginning his Air Force service in 2003, the 35-year-old's career had taken him to various bases and jobs in North and South Carolina before landing his latest gig in October as a member of the 20th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Shaw. But while managing a fast-paced military career, he was also balancing a strenuous long-distance marriage to his wife, Jessica Rhoton.

It had been more than 15 years since meeting and falling in love in their late teens, but they couldn't make it work. The two separated in January, according to Jessica's brother, Mark Gonzales. 

Around lunchtime on Aug. 13, Jessica received a text message from her spouse. It had been just one day after their shared cat Snickers had died. Gonzales said the message read, in part, "the first time I saw you, I knew I couldn't be without you."

Christopher Rhoton died by suicide later that same day. 

"He was someone you looked up to," Gonzales said. "He was someone who thought things through in life. My sister was everything to him. He based his whole military life around her."

Christopher Rhoton is the latest casualty of an alarming local and national trend. He joins 26-year-old Justin Strickland and 28-year-old Jose Llanes — two more airmen who died by suicide, Sumter County Coroner Robert Baker said. Additionally, 30-year-old Aaron Hall and 32-year-old Amalia Joseph also died on base this year as a result of health complications from the base's physical fitness test. 

As of the end of July, 79 suicides had occurred in the Air Force in 2019 — nearly as many as were recorded last year in about half the time, according to the Air Force Times. The branch saw about 100 suicides per year in each of the past five years. 

But this year is different, and the Air Force's top brass is concerned that 2019 could be the deadliest yet when it comes to suicides. The stats have even caused the branch to cease operations at every one of their bases sometime this summer to reflect on how they can do better. 

"We lose more airmen to suicide than any other single enemy, even more than combat," Kaleth Wright, chief master sergeant of the Air Force, said in a video earlier this month. "If we don't do something, we could lose up to 150, 160 airmen in 2019."

Emotionally and physically tired 

Christopher Rhoton didn't show the tell-tale signs, Gonzales said. 

He was energized by his job and despite the separation, he still kept in touch with his family and his sister regularly. The text message he sent before he died was jarring to everyone he knew, including his chain of command. The news of Rhoton's death prompted a response from the commander of the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw, Col. Derek O'Malley. In an emotional selfie video posted to Facebook, he pleaded for a change.

“We lost another airman yesterday,” O'Malley said. “But here we are again, I can’t believe it. I wake up every day to try and make this place a better place. There’s so much we try to do, so much more we need to do. But none of that matters right now because we lost another one of our own.”

Nationally, there have been nearly 30 more Air Force suicides than this time last year. Many airmen at Shaw Air Force Base reached by The Post and Courier deferred comment to the pubic information office. But many have joined in solidarity online, donating to GoFundMe accounts for fallen comrades and changing their profile pictures on Facebook to the Air Force crest with a long black line through the middle of it. 

In a video addressing the rise in suicides, Wright said there appears to be common threads but not a clear answer as to why they have become more frequent.

“As we peel back the onion on many of these cases, on occasion, we see some common threads: Relationship problems, sometimes discipline issues, things of that nature," Wright told Air Force Magazine. "It’s really hard to kind of nail down the why — why there’s been such an increase."

Bases like Shaw have outlets for service members to discuss their mental health with medical professionals and officers within the chain of command. But, the desire to serve and not be stigmatized or seen as weak by peers can often overpower the desire to be open and transparent about mental illness. 

"We're not going to solve this by talking," O'Malley said in his video. "Those words have to translate into action ... there is no one thing we can do this solve this, but there are thousands of things we can do to help." 

Shaw has taken action in the wake of all five deaths. 

After Hall and Joseph died after physical testing in June, the base shut down physical training testing for two weeks. Additional test preparation, including educating airmen on proper hydration, supplement use and proper acclimation was added.

When it comes to mental health resources, Shaw Air Force Base said in a statement that the installation has "multiple support agencies and feedback opportunities for Airmen to voice their concerns and solutions."

But national Air Force leaders have something larger in mind. 

Pausing to reflect 

At the beginning of August, a few weeks before Christopher Rhoton's death, it was reported that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein would order every unit to cease operations and take a day to address mental health. 

“Taking care of our airmen and their families so they can take care of the mission is our most sacred duty as leaders,” Goldfein wrote in a letter to commanders, according to Air Force Magazine. "Make this tactical pause matter. Make it yours and make it personal.”

The date for Shaw's pause has not yet been announced. 

South Carolina's senators in Washington, D.C., haven't said much about the tragedies at Shaw. Sen. Lindsey Graham, himself a former retired Air Force Reserve colonel, commented on it briefly and praised the branch's response during a recent visit to his home state. 

“We’re trying to make it easier to go and get counseling that it won’t hurt your career," Graham said last week at a Mount Pleasant luncheon. "If you’re having a bad time in your life, go seek help. That used to be a stigma. It’s no longer a stigma. So just looking out for your buddy, spending some time and effort for commanders and first sergeants. The military has probably got the most effective program than anybody I know, but this is just a problem.”

When asked about potential policy changes, Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop said, "We've been in contact with the base seeking additional information." Sen. Tim Scott did not return a request for comment sent earlier last week.

Gonzales recognizes that his brother-in-law's struggles were hidden from view. During Christopher Rhoton's wake last week, airmen who worked with the 35-year-old showed up in Humvees and dress blues. He didn't know them, but they knew Christopher. And while they didn't know their comrade's struggles, they knew that his family needed love. They took Gonzales and his sister out to dinner afterward. He said it felt like another family member in the military was comforting them when they needed it most. 

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Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5715. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly reports on crime, growth and development as well as military issues in Berkeley and Dorchester counties. Previously, he was a reporter at the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

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