Air Force orders first ever day off from training to tackle rising suicide rate

Air Force draws attention to suicides
Air Force draws attention to suicides 02:02

Last Updated Aug 1, 2019 7:15 PM EDT

Pentagon — The Air Force is dealing with an epidemic of suicide. So far this year, there have been 30 more suicides among airmen than there were by this time last year.

"We lose more airmen to suicide than any other single enemy. Even more than combat. Seventy eight of our brothers and sisters have given up on life this year alone," said Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright.

In an extraordinary video message, Wright explained why the Air Force is ordering a first ever suicide stand down — a day off from training to focus on an epidemic of young people like Airman Xinhua Mesenberg taking their own lives. "The stress life has given me finally broke my will to live," he texted his parents just before he shot himself last January. 

"If we don't do something, we could lose up to 150, 160 airmen in 2019," Wright added.

In the Marine Corps, 2018 was the worst year ever with 77 suicides and 354 attempts. Gen. Robert Neller, who recently retired as commandant, wrote in four years he had lost 224 Marines to suicide and only four to combat.

In a Facebook post, he said, "let us help each other."

In his letter, Neller speculated social media might have something to do with it. But he seemed to doubt taking to social media himself would do much good.

What's happening in the military is also happening in the civilian world. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates nationwide have gone up 31% since 2001. Among young people, it is the second leading cause of death after accidents.

For immediate help if you are in a crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All calls are confidential.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.