An Air Force colonel who once told his airmen that suicide was “a chickenshit way to go” has been nominated for the rank of brigadier general, the Department of Defense announced earlier this month. Col. Michael A. Miller, the chief of staff at Headquarters Air Force Global Strike Command at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., was on a 1.2-mile run with airmen on Aug. 2, 2019, when he commented that “killing yourself is a chickenshit way to go.”
The colonel, who at the time commanded the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale, made his comment shortly after then-Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein directed the service to take a “tactical pause” in response to a sharp increase in suicide deaths that year. Data later showed that 137 airmen and Air Force civilians died by suicide in 2019, a 33% increase over the previous year. Miller later wrote an apology for his comment.
“He’s a senior leader, he needs to choose his words carefully, especially when talking about a serious issue like this,” wrote one commenter when the news was shared on the popular Facebook page Air Force Amn/nco/snco in 2019.
“CSAF and CMSAF wanted to know why suicide was on the rise in the service,” wrote another. “I present, Exhibit A.”
Still, several other commenters defended Miller and said he was a good officer during the time they served under him.
“Col. Miller couldn’t be further from a toxic leader,” wrote one Facebook user. “This man had a deep passion for Airmen and that can be felt within a few seconds of conversation with him. The quote is ill-advised but the sentiment of the speech was we are a family.”
“Only wing commander I know who actually comes out and checks on his squadrons and listens to their concerns,” wrote another.
Miller had been in command of the 2nd Bomb Wing for about a year when he made his comment. He had previously commanded the Joint-Global Strike Operations Center at Barksdale. A B-52 and B-1 weapon systems officer, he has more than 2,400 flight hours, including 700 combat hours in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, according to his command biography. As commander at Barksdale, Miller was responsible for 11,400 military and civilian personnel. He passed command of the wing to Col. Mark C. Dymtryszyn in July 2020.
“Let me say that my choice of words was poor,” Miller said in his apology on Aug. 5, 2019. “I referenced the act of suicide in a manner that was insensitive and inappropriate.”
However, “that one sentence doesn’t capture the context or intent of the message I was trying to relay,” he continued. “Battling through pain to ask for help is one of the most courageous things we can do. Asking for help is hard, so we need to build that sense of family where it is acceptable to ask for help from each other.”
Task & Purpose reported at the time that Miller ordered the 1.2-mile run in response to an uptick in suicides and a series of murders involving Barksdale airmen. Five members associated with Barksdale had been murdered since Miller took command in June 2018, he wrote in a statement earlier that year. All those deaths weighed heavily on the colonel, he said at the time.
“As I have expressed to the Airmen of the 2nd Bomb Wing time and time again; my biggest fear is that Airmen become so overwhelmed with life and work, that they feel as though they have nowhere to go, when in fact, they have an entire Air Force family to turn to,” Miller wrote. “We have the will, resolve and support in place to assist any member that is struggling. They are never alone or without help.”
Miller and 33 other Air Force officers nominated for brigadier general must first be confirmed by the Senate before being appointed to that rank.
Featured Image – Col. Michael Miller, 2nd Bomb Wing commander, addresses the crowd during the 2nd Bomb Wing Quarterly Awards ceremony at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, July 26, 2019. (Air Force photo / Airman 1st Class Lillian Miller)
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press “1” to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misidentified the current commander of the 2nd Bomb Wing as Col. Randy Whitecotton. The actual commander is Col. Mark C. Dymtryszyn. Whitecotton is the 2nd BW’s Mission Support Group commander.