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Airmen seek solutions for suicide prevention

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Daniel Martinez
  • 386th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

(EDITORS NOTE: The holiday season is a time for family and friends to get together and celebrate. For some, the holiday season can be an especially difficult time, especially in a deployed location away from loved ones. As the New Year approaches, take time to watch after each other, learn the signs of someone who may be in distress, and take care of yourself. If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, seek help immediately. Call the Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or refer to the additional resources provided in this article.)

“I hope that all of you remember me fondly, I hope all of you will live a long and happy life. As I fade from your memories, please know this was nobody’s fault. The stress life has given me, finally broke my will to live.”

Those were the final words of Senior Airman XinHua Mesenberg, an Airman at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. In early January, he texted those words to his adoptive parents before dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

In November 2019, the suicide rate in the U.S. Air Force, to include the Reserve and Guard, rose to 79 Airmen suicides, surpassing that of 2018 at the same point last year according to the 386th Expeditionary Medical Group mental health clinic. In response, a resiliency tactical pause, levied from the top echelons of leadership, was implemented throughout all Air Force units in hopes of setting the groundwork to prevent another tragic Airman suicide. Although the impact of that initiative is yet to be determined, some Airmen are finding ways to supplement the Air Force’s approach with their own.

Three Airmen deployed to Ali Al Salem Air Base have taken an unprompted step toward revitalizing the proverbial Wingman concept, which they hope will make a difference. These are their stories.


Staff Sgt. Zachary Miller, on his way to start an evening shift as a fuels controller with the 386th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron, stops at the coffee trailer along the way to discuss his Facebook group – Air Force Wingman Outreach. The online group provides a platform for Airmen to talk about their problems, vent, get feedback and advice and develop bonds with other Airmen. Aware of the rising suicide rate, Miller hoped his group would offer one solution to this issue.

Staff Sgt. Zachary Miller views his Air Force Wingman Outreach Facebook group page. 

“Everybody was flocking to social media to vent their problems,” he said. “It got me thinking about how people really just want to be heard. So combatting this issue of the rising suicide rates, I thought, ‘what can I do to help?’”

Miller is soft spoken, releasing his words in a measured manner as he explains the origins of his online group. He’s not being overcautious with what he’s saying, instead his words reflect an introspective approach that best helps him articulate what’s anxiously weighing on his mind.

“We’re trying to focus on getting rid of the negative stigma surrounding mental health, which is another reason why I started the page because, in all honesty, there’s a negative stigma attached,” he said. “I honestly feel that is one of the contributing factors to the rising rate of suicides because people are afraid to go get the help that they need. They don’t want their teammates to have to pull their weight, or don’t want to be seen as ‘that person.’”

The social media page apparently resonated with Airmen all over the world. In a matter of weeks, Miller saw membership explode. One day as he slept between shifts, membership grew from 500 to 3,000 members. Today, there are more than 37,600 members, some from other branches of the military. The page was also mentioned by name by Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright on different occasions to different audiences of Airmen.

Staff Sgt. Zachary Miller wears an Air Force Wingman Outreach morale patch. 

“I have gotten several messages from Air Force leaders saying they didn’t realize this is how their Airmen felt or that these problems were going on and they’re trying to come up with ways to change that. It’s never going to be perfect,” Miller said. “But I believe that it is making a difference with leadership because they can go there and read what their Airmen are saying, how their Airmen are feeling and try to come up with ways to change that and make it better for everybody.”

Today, many Airmen across the Air Force have replicated Miller’s Facebook group at their own duty locations, further expanding the potential outreach of Airmen helping Airmen.


When Chief Master Sgt. Sebrena Flagg-Briggs walks into a room, the atmosphere changes. A sense of jubilation fills the air and you can’t help but smile. To the chief, meeting her Airmen and showing they are valued is the highlight of the day. To spread her positive message beyond her own Airmen, she’s turned the power of two simple words into a movement.

“What inspired me to start the ‘You Matter’ movement was hearing about another suicide,” said the 386th ELRS chief enlisted manager. “One of the objectives is to ask the person how they know that they matter and to start the conversation.”

Chief Master Sgt. Sabrena Flagg-Briggs takes a photo in front of the "You Matter" wall. 

The “You Matter” movement is about acknowledging the value and importance of a person. Aside from engaging her own Airmen with the message, Flagg-Briggs said it’s about sharing that sentiment with others while establishing a meaningful face-to-face human connection. She hopes to continue seeing her message spread far and wide.

”I want it to resonate. The objective is to keep seeing those words, reading those words and it’ll stay stuck in your head. The hope is that when you need it, it will come to the surface that you do matter,” she said.

Flagg-Briggs has left her mark on Ali Al Salem. She’s held base events built around the theme of her campaign, introduced “You Matter” morale patches that base leadership wears on Fridays, and had a concrete barrier painted with her words in big, colorful letters signed by different service members who have become part of the movement.

Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, Air Forces Central Commander command, holds a "You Matter" patch while taking a photo with a group of Airmen.

“The goal is to save lives – absolutely, positively,” she said. “One suicide too many – I’m tired of it, fed up, we’ve got to do something.”

Her movement continues to grow. Flagg-Briggs recently took a photo with Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, Air Forces Central Command commander, holding a “You Matter” patch with a group of Airmen.


On Aug. 6, 2019, Staff Sgt. Alyssa Reilly posted a live video on her personal Facebook page. While sitting in front of a concrete barrier in uniform on Ali Al Salem she talked about the personal struggles and disconnected feeling some Airmen feel with each other and in the Air Force. She also opened up about her mom’s passing almost two years ago to breast cancer and the pain that ensued in her personal life as a result.

The video was shared by some of her friends and soon landed on a popular unofficial Air Force-themed Facebook group with an audience of more than 320,000 followers. The publicity caught her off guard, but her message resonated with many people.

“I honestly had zero intentions of it getting shared beyond my personal page because it actually was a live video on my personal Facebook page, and it was obviously something that had been on my mind for a long time,” said the Airman assigned to the 386th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron. “I had that personal experience with suicide and mental health and that really shook me to my core.”

Staff Sgt. Alyssa Reilly holds her phone as her viral video is playing.

In the video, Reilly talks about self-medicating with alcohol and how she one day almost took her own life. She said it was her boyfriend, now husband, who aided her in getting the help she needed. Reilly said her Facebook video was meant to be a way to show to herself how she has overcome certain obstacles in her life, and bring those issues out into the open where they can no longer harm her in secret. Her vulnerability, candor, occasional explicit language and emotional tears were lauded by many viewers for her unfiltered, heartfelt rawness. Despite this, Reilly opines that a cultural change is still needed in order to reduce suicides in the military.

“I think the Air Force has created a culture where it is all competition based and you lose that camaraderie along the way, you lose that connectedness to people, and that value of the person beyond the uniform. It takes a toll on people because they realize that,” she said. “We aren’t really treating people like people sometimes, even enlisted to officers. I think it’s really important for everybody to see the person beyond the uniform and be able to acknowledge the fact that it’s okay to not be okay 24/7 because it’s an unrealistic expectation for anybody, let alone yourself.”

While her video was not originally meant for a widespread audience, she decided to pursue a more deliberate means of helping people. She’s working with other Airmen to implement a program where some sort of visible designator on the uniform identifies a trained Airman that can be approached for help, support and guidance. This would provide an additional informal channel where an Airman can talk through their thoughts with a trained volunteer, similar to a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response advocate.


According to Department of Defense quarterly suicide reports posted on the Defense Suicide Prevention Office website, there was a total of 579 Air Force, Reserve and Guard suicides from 2012 to 2018. Suicides peaked in 2015 with a total 94, but 2019 may likely surpass that number depending on the latest stats in the yet unreleased quarterly report.

“The Air Force Strategy toward confronting the increase in suicides is a leadership-driven, comprehensive public-health approach to connect individuals, units and Air Force family members with the goal of never losing another Airman or family member to suicide,” said Tech. Sgt. Brandon Woods, 386th Expeditionary Medical Group mental health technician.

Woods said that the mental health clinic on base is the best resource for deployed service members who may be suicidal. A patient can walk in and they provide 24 hour services. Other resources include the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), anonymous web chat services at, supervisors, friends, command post or calling 911 stateside.

“In addition to providing support members, we provide outreach and education to members of our community,” Woods said. “Even though there are several risks factors associated with suicide, recent data indicates relationship struggles puts individuals at heightened risk.”

While the problem may get worse before it becomes better, one thing Airmen like Miller, Flagg-Briggs and Reilly provide are options outside official channels. They offer choices for Airmen that may not necessarily opt for a “one size fits all” approach toward remedying their mental health issues. Arguably, there is no one single solution as every approach is limited in one way or another by scope, influence, resources and proximity. While some Airmen can rely on the professional medical community and psychological solutions from mental health experts, others may just need to connect with a wingman who’ll listen and talk with them, or a combination of both. With a grassroots approach toward improving mental health and the human connection, Miller, Flagg-Briggs and Reilly show that it may instead take a village. Be part of that village and help take care of each other.


Facts and statistics for this article were obtained from the following sources:

- Losey, Stephen. (2019, January 7). Father posts heartbreaking note after Andrews airman’s apparent suicide. Retrieved from

- Mesenberg, Mitch (c.a. 2019) In Facebook [personal page]. Retrieved from

- Orvis, Karin A. Ph.D. (2019). Department of Defense (DoD) Quarterly Suicide Report (QSR) 2nd Quarter, CY 2019. Retrieved from