‘Is anyone looking into this?’: Community concerned after third reported suicide at Shaw Air Force Base this year

Updated: Aug. 16, 2019 at 6:40 AM EDT
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SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. (WIS) - In the wake of another suicide among the ranks at Shaw Air Force Base, people are sharing their concerns on social media.

U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Christopher Rhoton
U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Christopher Rhoton(U.S. Air Force)

U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Christopher Rhoton was found dead in his home, located off the base, on the afternoon of Tuesday, Aug. 13.

Serving in the Air Force since 2003, Rhoton was stationed at Shaw in October 2018 as a member of the 20th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.

Rhoton took his own life, Major Allen Dailey with the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office confirmed.

In a video posted Wednesday by Col. Derek J. O’Malley, Commander for the 20th Fighter Wing, the commander spoke with sadness and disbelief.

“Here we are again, I can’t believe it,” O’Malley said. “I wake up every day, my command team, we wake up every day to try to 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.”

We lost one of our own yesterday. We are heartbroken. Now, more than ever, we need to unite, to check on one another, to be kind, to be there.

Posted by Shaw Air Force Base on Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Facebook video post has more than 250 comments and 600 shares.

Scrolling through a few of the comments, one reads, "This happens way too often at Shaw. Is anyone looking into this?"

Another says, "Someone had even gotten laughed at for seeking help, and was told their problem isn't serious."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve Colonel, spoke about the rising number of suicides in the Air Force during his visit to South Carolina on Friday.

“Anytime you have one, it’s tragic, but the actual numbers of military suicides is in line with the population as a whole,” Graham said. “But our people are under stress, a lot of deployments. With very new, innovative programs -- when you come back from overseas, make sure that your mental health is evaluated -- not just your physical health. We’re trying to make it easier to go and get counseling that it won’t hurt your career. 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.”

This is the fifth death of an airman stationed at the base in 2019, and the third confirmed suicide, according to Sumter County Coroner Robert Baker.

In the month ahead all Air Force bases, including Shaw, are taking what they call a “resiliency day” -- a day to stand down from their mission and focus on the well-being of the airmen, officials at Shaw confirmed.

This is a direct response to the rising number of suicides among the Air Force, according to the Air Force Times. That article, posted at the beginning of August, said 78 airmen have taken their own lives so far in 2019.

“This is not a one-day effort to check a box,” U.S Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth O. Wright said in a video posted on Facebook. “This is the beginning of a much needed dialogue between airmen, command teams, helping agencies, and frankly, our entire Air Force. We have to get this turned around.”

While Shaw said they would participate in the resiliency day, base officials have not shared their specific plans.

WIS has been pushing to get answers from Shaw leadership on what they are doing to address the perception, or reality, that getting critical mental health treatment is done at the risk of jeopardizing an airman’s career, as well as what services are offered.

They responded with the following statement via email:

"Our team is focused on getting the airmen and families the care they need. When we have taken care of the families we can try to coordinate an interview."

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