“For when I am weak, then am I strong.” We need this. We need to be resilient…ready to overcome any challenge, embrace inevitable change, and ready to face our own fears and demons to push them into the past in order to look with hope to our futures. But too many of us try to do this alone. Too many of us hide our struggles and often fail to open up to someone until we reach a stage of near-crisis or even full-blown crisis. Yet when we bring up the term “resiliency,” we experience the eyerolls and big sighs for another round of training that seems to pay lip-service to the problem, check a box to meet surface requirements, and not fully address the issue or provide real stories and resources. To get beyond that feeling, we must own it. We must push beyond just the professional. We must make it personal.
Why? In my 2-year squadron command, in my squadron alone, we have experienced four (4) suicidal ideations, two (2) of them to include non-fatal suicide attempts. Three (3) more members have identified previous suicidal ideations during some sort of counseling. That list is only what we know of. How much don’t we know? What are our Airmen feeling right now? How many feel extremely stressed, depressed, or have such high anxiety that such a thought might cross their mind? In most of those cases, we had no idea about the extent of the emotional darkness they were experiencing until it reached a point of near-crisis. As much as we espouse the idea of intrusive leadership and wingmen principles, their supervisors, peers, and even their closest friends were shocked by revelations of something that could have been a permananent solution to a temporary (usually), yet overwhelming, problem. Additionally, outside of our squadron, but still within the group, we have been connected to three (3) deaths by suicide with the past two years, and the loss we have felt and the impact that it has had on our community cannot nor should not be brushed aside. On a broader scale, the Air Force lost 58 active duty Airmen to death by suicide in 2018. These were coworkers, peers, leaders, and friends. In every case, we wish beyond expression the desire to walk into work and see them again, to know what we could have done to step in and alter the course of their despair, and to prevent a loss that could have been stopped.
“Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back at least as strong as before.”
That is why resilience is so important. That is why we need to be able to bounce back from emotional, mental, physical, behavioral, personal, and professional setbacks, and to help others be able to do so as well. Not alone, but with fellowship. With the help from teammates who have been there or known someone who was. From leaders who do everything they can to get to know their people on multiple levels. From those leading up to ensure their leadership are okay, and ready to tackle similar challenges. We so often where our own mask and put on a face we want others to see. We feel as if we must always be professional, and take the personal out of the equation.
When we keep it “too” professional, and remove the personal, we get it wrong. We must make it personal. The essence of leadership, especially in our Air Force, is to act through compassion and care for our people in order to empower them to complete the mission. It is because we care that we drive mission accomplishment, the training to prepare for those same missions, enforce the standards that uphold our mission capabilities, and develop policies and practices to provide our men and women the ability to grow, develop, and learn. We must seek out comprehensive balance in all of our lives, and in doing so, build a resiliency that provides hope in the face of any challenge. When we know we’re all in, when we’re in it together, then we know someone’s got our back. It gives us courage. Others help us stand when we cannot, and often when we choose to try to go it alone, that is when we really fall.
So we must make it personal. In college, I fought my own spiritual demons on several levels, but didn’t want to burden my friends or thought some of them would think I was crazy. After 2 weeks of near-sleepless nights, it was one of my professors who called me into her office to address her concern that there was a noticeable change with me, so we talked a little, but she also encouraged me to to talk to my parish priest, also an Air Force Chaplain. Once I had opened up to both her and my priest, I was able to open up to my friends much more easily. I was able to move beyond the embarassment of sharing the issue and receive the support and fellowship, to include counseling with the Chaplain…the help I needed…to take on those demons head-on and overcome them. Who knows how long it would have taken or what it could have led to if that professor had not addressed it with me directly. And once I had opened up to friends, to my surprise, the biggest response I received was their disappointment and sadness in the fact that I had not shared it with them earlier. They wanted to help. They wanted to be there…not to judge, but to walk alongside me and face those challenges with me, together. It was a lesson I will always remember, and one which influences my push for intrusive leadership today.
Today is no different. I still face many battles in private, but have learned to open up to many trusted friends, and even incorporate some of the issues into our Operational Risk Management (ORM) process before flights. It often surprises people at the transparency of sharing some personal issues, but it has also tended to empower someone else on the crew to speak up as well. It doesn’t mean we can’t do the job, but I do believe if we understand each others’ mindsets and emotional balance, then we can incorporate that into daily risk management as a team. It enforces “radical candor,” open feedback, and honest assessment of a situation that we may try to take too far on our own.
The question I keep coming back to is simple. If I know several friends who have a myriad of emotional issues going on, as well as myself, how much is going on in the lives of each of my Airmen (that I’m not aware of)? What don’t I know, but possibly need to? In that, we must be ever vigilant, as it has proven important to see that subtle change in someone we work with. That may be enough. It may not. But we have to be ready to respond, try to get ahead of a problem before it becomes worse, and try to stave off those spirals into potential despair. We can’t do that if we don’t get to know each other and drive towards the interconnected mentality of team who will always be there for each other.
Resilience does not equal a “toughen up” mindset. In fact, it is 180 degrees out in that regard. Resilience is the ability to let our guard down to get the help we need. It is the ability to admit, to both ourselves and others, that we need someone else to assist us in a time of need. True strength does not come from individual effort to “go it alone,” but rather from the collective teamwork of an insulating support network. The great thing we need to realize is that there are many resources available. All we need is help finding them, and taking that first step. Whether that starts with a friend, a supervisor, the First Sergeant, our squadron leadership, an external source such as a crisis hotline, Military OneSource, reading testimonials, articles, and or other materials, seeing a Chaplain, or utilizing our medical health services directly, we must reach out. And the sooner we can do so, the more likely we can fight a problem before it becomes an overwhelming problem. We have to. Our Airmen are too important. Our families are too important. You are too important…