Every Airman a wingman

  • Published
  • By Major Thomas Ficklin V
  • 56th Contracting Squadron Commander
Between staff meetings, answering taskers for the boss and drafting 1206s, I had noticed one of my young officers was more reserved than usual. I inquired of this supervisor if there had been any change in the lieutenant's job performance.

I learned that while no major problems had arisen, his supervisor remarked that he often seemed to be lost in thought or not quite with it. I noticed he was distant and wore a concerned "weight of the world upon his shoulders" expression. I had six company grade officers in the unit who were like a band of brothers, so I checked with them to see if they knew what was going on.

The lieutenant in question was married to another lieutenant who was deployed at the time. His buddies mentioned there might be some issues related to his spouse's deployment, but they didn't know the particulars. Fortunately, I also had a great flight chief who took it upon himself to find out what was going on.

The lieutenant eventually confided in the flight chief what his concerns were and how he was feeling. The flight chief made sure the young officer knew what base support agencies/personnel were available to assist him, and to his credit, he took advantage of these sources of guidance. He didn't miraculously bounce back to normal overnight however.

He continued using various base and private sources of counseling, but experienced some real low points over the next few months. His CGO buddies made concerted efforts to include him in after hours and weekend activities. His flight chief was also great and offered a listening ear whenever he needed to talk, and I made sure I put eyes on him more frequently to assess his state of mind.

One Friday, his buddies and the flight chief came to me and said the lieutenant had a really tough couple of nights. It was then I knew I needed to get him away from the work place and pose some tough questions to him. We went to a local eatery for brunch and I let him talk.

I don't know if as a boss, a family member or as a friend you're ever ready to ask a question such as "Are you thinking about hurting yourself?" But, I realized it was time to pose the question. The answer was matter of fact and, judging by the direction of the conversation, I believe it was a relief that he knew someone else now knew how badly he had been hurting. Life skills was an immense help over the next few weeks and months. Due to confidentiality, there is only so much that the counselors were able to share with me. I deployed within weeks of our brunch meeting, and then permanently changed station almost immediately upon return from the area of operation. The summer season resulted in several of the CGO buddies moving to new job, but I'm happy to say the lieutenant continued on and has since been promoted. Wingmen who made a difference in this young officer's life included his flight chief, his commander and his group of close associates in the squadron.

I took a couple of lessons from this experience. If you have a suspicion something is going on with a fellow Airman, follow up on it. It goes back to one of the basic leadership principles: Know your people. Friends or peers may be more comfortable dealing with the symptoms rather than confronting the problem head-on and finding the root cause.

As commanders and supervisors, we have the responsibility to ask the tough questions. We are not psychologists and we should not attempt to counsel -- leave that to the professionals. Identify problems, recommend professional help and direct to professional help when there is a risk of harm to self or others.

As wingmen we need to put aside our reluctance to confront potential problems -- it's not about us, it's about our troops and getting them the help they need to regain the mental and emotional effectiveness required on and off duty. The lieutenant in this casecontinued his active duty Air Force service and to my knowledge has not had any career impact. My experience has been that the Air Force reaches out to those who raise their hands, ask for help and resolve their problems.

Airmen are the Air Force's number one asset. The Air Force has a vested interest in returning those assets to full "mission capable" status.

There is a vast array of trained professionals who can assist with a wide range of physical and emotional issues as well as to treat various addictions. Today's expeditionary Airmen face many stressors including force shaping initiatives, budget and contract cuts and Global War on Terrorism deployments resulting in significant time away from family and friends. We must be vigilant and proactive in ensuring our Airmenare fit -- mentally and physically -- to fight.