Air Force must learn from suicides, chief says in wake of airman’s self-immolation over Gaza

by Braxton Taylor

After the U.S. Air Force chief was repeatedly hectored by protesters at a Wednesday think-tank event, Gen. David Allvin called an airman’s recent self-immolation a “tragedy” and said his service is investigating.

“For our Air Force, we look at this as, whether it was politically motivated or other, we lost one of ours. And so, any suicide, whether by political protest or by resiliency issues or wherever it is, is a tragedy and as we’re looking at wherever the rationale might be, there’s a standard investigation process [to] go through that and we look at that to make sure we understand everything about what happened,” Allvin said during an event at the Brookings Institution.  

Active duty airman Aaron Bushnell, 25, of Whitman, Massachusetts, set himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, declaring that he would “no longer be complicit in genocide” and shouting “Free Palestine” during his final moments. 

Seven protesters interrupted the Brookings event on Wednesday, shouting various statements surrounding the Israel-Hamas war and Bushnell’s death, including “ceasefire now,” “you killed Aaron Bushnell,” and “say his name.” 

Allvin didn’t respond to the protesters, but when asked about Bushnell’s death during the question-and-answer portion of the event, the general said the Air Force must tackle suicide.

“We have about 100 or so suicides per year and every year we try to get after, how do we reduce this? So right now, where we are in that case is, understanding that has a lot of political fervor attached to it, this is just one of our airmen that we lost and we’re looking after family, looking at the unit and really trying to understand if there’s any context behind this, what lessons can be learned, but it’s really about the individual that we lost,” Allvin said.

The Air Force is currently wrapping up its largest-ever study of suicide in its ranks. The Standardized Suicide Fatality Analysis report, which was supposed to have been finished in spring 2023, “is taking longer than expected because nothing like it has been done before and officials want to get this first annual study right,” Air & Space Forces magazine reported in December.

Asked whether Bushnell’s death reveals broader concern by military personnel about how Israel is using U.S.-provided weapons in Gaza, Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said Monday that Israel has a right to defend itself and that the department “actively” tells Israel to take civilian life into account. 

“As we’ve talked about before, while our support for Israel’s inherent right to defend itself is ironclad, we’ve also continued to actively communicate our expectations that Israel take civilian safety and humanitarian assistance into account into their operations. You see that incorporated into every conversation the secretary has with his counterpart in Israel, as well as other U.S. officials. And we expect them to continue to adhere to the law of armed conflict and international humanitarian law. We’ll continue to do that,” Ryder said.

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