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The U.S. airman who set himself on fire to protest the war in Gaza has died

A man enters the Israeli embassy, near pictures of hostages in Gaza, in Washington, D.C., on Monday. An airman has died after self-immolating in what he said on social media was an act of protest against Israel's war in Gaza.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
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AFP via Getty Images
A man enters the Israeli embassy, near pictures of hostages in Gaza, in Washington, D.C., on Monday. An airman has died after self-immolating in what he said on social media was an act of protest against Israel's war in Gaza.

Updated February 26, 2024 at 8:28 PM ET

Aaron Bushnell, 25, died in the hospital after setting himself on fire outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Sunday in what he said on social media was an act of protest against Israel's war in Gaza.

Bushnell was an active duty member of the U.S. Air Force and based in San Antonio, Texas, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department said. He was pronounced dead at 8:06 p.m. ET Sunday.

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On Sunday, the U.S. Secret Service said it was responding to reports of an individual experiencing a possible medical or mental health emergency. Local police arrived around 1 p.m.

Bushnell appeared to have livestreamed his self-immolation on the social media platform Twitch.

Leading up the incident, Bushnell said in the video that he "will no longer be complicit in genocide." Later, as he burned in front of the Israeli Embassy, Bushnell could be seen on the livestream yelling "Free Palestine!"

The fire was extinguished, and Bushnell, who sustained "critical life threatening injuries," was rushed to a local hospital, according to D.C. Fire and EMS.

The Israeli Embassy in D.C. said none of its staff were injured.

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The video has since been taken down by Twitch.

The incident is currently being investigated by the local police, the Secret Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Local police said the footage was part of its investigation. The U.S. Air Force said it will provide more information in the coming day after the next of kin notifications are complete.

Multiple law enforcement agencies arrived at the Israeli Embassy on Sunday afternoon after a man set himself on fire infront of the building.
/ Andrew Leyden
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Andrew Leyden
Multiple law enforcement agencies arrived at the Israeli Embassy on Sunday afternoon after a man set himself on fire in front of the building.

Details emerge about Bushnell's life

The Air Force said on Monday that Bushnell was from Whitman, Mass., and served as a cyber defense operations specialist with the 531st Intelligence Support Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio.

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He had been on active duty since May 2020. He was assigned to the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing.

Bushnell had volunteered with the San Antonio Care Collective to offer support to the city's unhoused population, Lupe Barboza of the Care Collective told Texas Public Radio.

In the days before his death, Bushnell created a will detailing his final wishes that he shared with close friends.

"He took all the steps he needed to make sure that everything he had would be cared for, like his cat, he designated that to his neighbor. ... So yeah, that to me is all the sense of someone who was measured and knew what he was doing," said Barboza, who saw the document. TPR also reviewed the will.

Barboza added that she witnessed Bushnell's self-immolation on Twitch.

"It didn't feel like real life. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It still doesn't feel like like it happened," she told TPR.

In a press conference Monday, Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is aware and following the situation.

"It certainly is a tragic event, we do extend our condolences to the airman's family," Ryder said.

Air Force Col. Celina Noyes, the 70th ISRW commander, said: "We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Senior Airman Bushnell. Our thoughts and prayers are with them, and we ask that you respect their privacy during this difficult time."

The war in Gaza began after Hamas-led militants attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking over 250 hostage. More than 130 people remain captive in Gaza, according to the Israeli government.

Israel responded with a military assault on Gaza which, according the health ministry in the enclave, has killed over 29,000 people. Nearly2 million people have been displaced and over 60% of housing has been damaged in Gaza, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Josh Peck of Texas Public Radio contributed reporting.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 27, 2024 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous version of this story incorrectly said Aaron Bushnell developed deep friendships with people living in encampments and would regularly purchase blankets, sweaters and snacks from a store on base to give out. Those actions were in fact referring to another airman.
Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.