National Suicide Prevention Month

  • Published
  • By Dr. Tom Tirey
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – In 1979, while stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota, I heard about Capt. Ron Keys and a “Dear Boss” letter he had written.

The letter to his supervisor went like this: “I’m tired of the extremely poor leadership and motivational ability of our senior staffers and commanders. All those master’s degrees and PMEs and not a leadership trait in sight!”

At that time, there was no email or texting. If you wanted to say something, you either had to write a letter, pick up the phone, or stand up and say it.

Keys had enough of being treated badly by his leadership and wrote a letter to his boss venting his frustrations and threatening to resign. 

Although he thought he threw it away, someone picked it up and the letter found its way to Gen. Wilbur “Bill” Creech, the commanding officer of Tactical Air Command.

Along the way, the letter was copied and read many times by Airmen and became known as the “Dear Boss” letter.

Keys found he represented the tip of an iceberg of disappointment and low morale. In fact, in 1979, the Air Force was losing 75 out of every 100 pilots by their 11th year of service.

In Keys’ case, he found a kindred spirit in Creech. Instead of punishing Keys, the general commended him for making him aware of the problem and made it known to his subordinate commanders that ruling by intimidation would not be acceptable.

Today, I would like to say that those days are long gone. Instead, the “Dear Boss” letter has migrated online in various forums and formats such as opinion pieces calling out poor leadership and advocating for reform. 

One online platform that has become increasingly popular is the Air Force Reddit forum, which has even created a dedicated page with mental health resources and a team of over 100 anonymous community members ready to help depressed and suicidal Airmen, at a moment’s notice.

Perhaps most striking is that these Airmen are bringing their issues to an anonymous forum instead of reaching out to their leaders. This is not to say, by any means, that the majority of Air Force leaders are treating their subordinates poorly. Like Creech, most leaders treat their Airmen with trust and appreciation, not fear and intimidation. 

If we are to continue to strengthen our wingman resilience culture, we must all be willing to look inward and for opportunities to improve ourselves.

Our leaders must be resilient themselves. Leaders must possess self-awareness of their own emotions and have the skill sets to manage and influence subordinate emotions, because their leadership styles create the environments that convey their resilience message to Airmen.

These three significant leadership traits have great influence on Airmen resilience.

We need to examine how they play such a critical part in strengthening our resilience and decreasing our suicide rates.