Don’t just command, care!

  • Published
  • By Donald “Coach” Brien
  • 621st Contingency Response Wing

The alarming rise in suicides across the Air Force over the past year caused Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright to direct a Resiliency Tactical Pause in late July 2019. Goldfein stated, “I don’t have the solution.” The RTP was not to be a one-day event or additional program. It was to be the start of a culture shift. A culture where there is no stigma around seeking or receiving mental health care. A culture of open communication between Airmen and their supervisors so early recognition of serious problems occurs and, better yet, minor problems do not develop into serious ones. From what I observed at my wing’s RTP in late August, the majority of Airmen viewed the RTP as beneficial.

As numerous organizations do from time to time, our wing recently held a Leadership Summit. All unit commanders and their senior enlisted leaders came together to align focus, develop the leadership team and promote unit cohesion. Certain wing staff agency chiefs involved in some of the key topics also attended. The chief of the wing staff agency where I work scheduled a family cruise months prior to the Leadership Summit being announced, so I went in his place. I received the final schedule of topics and instantly zeroed in on a session designed not only to develop the leadership teams but also to continue the message from the RTP. A 30-minute block titled, “Dealing with Suicide” was to be conducted by a commander whose squadron recently went through this devastating event.

The summit started a few days after I received the final schedule. I was getting anxious about this session all day and almost physically shaking as I sat in the back of the room. Earlier in the day I sent out a quick text to several individuals to actually pray for me during the time of the session. Now the time for the session arrived.

The commander explained the circumstances and background of his Airman’s suicide. He explained the process of next-of-kin notification, the casualty affairs officer’s duties, the memorial service and the agencies involved. He displayed the raw emotion and heartache felt by his entire unit, the installation and the family. Here was a commander with a few months in command facing one of the largest challenges any commander faces. He explained how the date of the suicide will be forever different in his mind, the minds of the squadron’s leadership team and all of the squadron’s Airmen. He then went into how the squadron was attempting to heal. He knew that from then on every decision he made as a commander and after his command would be affected by this suicide. You could hear a pin drop.

In one of the previous breaks I asked the commander giving the presentation if I could take a few minutes to provide another perspective and he graciously agreed. About two months before the Airman’s suicide, my son Caleb took his own life. My family will forever hold that date differently as well. It tempers every thought, action, plan and decision we have made since and forever more.

During my career I dealt with four different deaths of individuals in my unit, all related to off-duty accidents. I also dealt with several combat and mission deaths, and even one murder, of individuals I served with but I was not in the same unit as them at the time of their deaths. However, suicide is different. It leaves an unanswered “why”. This leads to blame and guilt. People think “What could I have done different?” “Her family shouldn’t have drove her to it” “Why didn’t I see the signs?” “If only the commander didn’t do …” While asking questions like this may help in preventing future tragedies, dwelling on them as an individual or organization does not promote healing. What you must remember when it comes to suicide is that like every issue or problem one comes across, the solution is eventually tied to personal accountability on someone’s part. In my son’s case, there were many things teachers, friends, neighbors, his coach, his employer, and I could have done. Hindsight is 20/20 after all. In the end, Caleb made a choice. No blame. No guilt.

Everyone’s story is different. Every relationship we hold is unique because each individual is unique. This means everyone’s grief is unique and everyone’s healing is unique. For me moving forward, every thought, action, plan, and decision is based on seeing each individual as unique. Not as objects but as people. Each individual is innately valuable, wonderfully and lovingly made in the image of God.

Grief and healing are not processes with an ending. A person does not “get over it”, “move on”, or “make it through this” when someone they know dies. They can choose to move forward. They must recognize the new normal and find ways to grieve in a healthy way so they can have hope and joy. For me, it has been recognizing the sovereignty of God and resting on His promises. I’m sad every day. Nevertheless, I can have joy, peace, and hope as well. Move forward.

Ours is an Air Force family. After serving 24+ years I retired and, after a short break, I am now serving in the Air Force again as a civilian. My daughter, son-in-law, and one of my four sons are currently in the Air Force. However, I do not “bleed blue” and do not believe anyone should. I am not always happy with the Air Force, particularly at the moment due to some cookie cutter approaches to leadership my son is experiencing! Treat each situation as unique because the people involved are unique! (But that is for another day) I truly did not understand the importance of the Air Force family at large until Caleb’s choice. The amount of support in contacting my children, taking care of some of the numerous administrative items involving an individual’s death, the Red Cross process to get our family together, and the outpouring of calls, emails, texts, and traveling to comfort us from present and past folks we served with … amazing! On this aspect of readiness, helping the Air Force family when in dire need, my family and I declare the Air Force “Highly Effective”.

However, I am concerned about the aftercare. The squadron commander dealing with an Airman’s suicide is feeling the brunt of this effort. Informing a family is hard enough. Then inform your 160 other Airmen that one of their teammates is gone. Now deal with 160 individually unique grieving Airmen and 160 individually unique healing processes. Some may say that’s not the squadron commander’s job. This view is naïve at best. An Airman’s suicide WILL affect the readiness of that Airman’s unit. It will affect the thoughts, actions, plans, and decisions of the other Airmen in that unit. How is this not the commander’s job? What about after two years when that commander passes the guidon and the majority of folks in the unit have changed? Who is watching them as they go on to other units? What if they come to your unit? No. I submit it is the responsibility of the commander, of leaders, to try and help all those affected to grieve and heal in healthy ways. To create that culture the RTP is looking for.

Think of a unit like a spider web. Everyone connected in some way like the strands of the web. When one strand is broken it affects the structural integrity of the entire web. In a suicide, the blame and guilt may also kick in which then makes the remaining strands question their own integrity or the integrity of other strands, further weakening the whole. Even if you “replace” the one strand the others are not fully confident in the integrity of the whole. How do you rebuild the web so it stays together? To take from some modern folklore, the image of Spider-Man trying to hold the boat from breaking apart comes to mind. Is the commander enough to rebuild it?

Now back to the summit. After I said my few words, others related their stories of dealing with suicides in their careers. The 30-minute session more than doubled in time as individuals related their stories and everyone went away with a better understanding of how deeply a suicide affects organizations and individuals. More than a few individuals, I included, with moist eyes along the way. I believe as a group we came away from the summit with a better understanding of how we can help each other and with more willingness to do so.

Near the end of the summit one of our crackerjack SNCOs asked that we commit to more regular RTP-like events for the leadership teams. For the commanders and senior enlisted who are fighting their Airmen’s battles, ensuring their Airmen get the resources they need, and pushing those Airmen to grow. All while putting on the positive face for the Airmen while individually they are struggling with the stressors, dealing with their own family and life situations, and just trying to hold it all together. This comment certainly got me thinking. Considering the discussion during the “Dealing with Suicide” session, I agree. Are our best and most caring squadron commanders and senior enlisted getting burned out with no one focusing on their care? The care they are absolutely committed to providing to their Airmen? Are the folks at the upper levels of leadership forgetting what it was like at the lower levels of leadership? How many Airmen look out for their squadron commander’s and SNCO’s mental and physical health?

Going back to the spider web, we must recognize that a unit is not just one web. It is a network of webs. Other units on base, higher and lower levels of organizations, and local communities affect the strength of the unit’s web. One of the most important webs is the family. The Air Force rightfully strengthened its focus on mission readiness the last several years. However, what impact does family readiness have on mission readiness? I discovered through Caleb’s writing that the military life held a stronger impact towards his choice than we knew.

He wrote of the feelings of losing his best friend from one of our earlier assignments and of the multiple times when friends were made and then lost due to military moves. He never grasped the value and gratitude of the experience, only the grief. Being in a large family alleviated many of the pains he felt. He always enjoyed family times, traditions, travels, and games. He always kept things to himself and was always very black-and-white in his decisions and thinking. We never had to bug him about homework or grades. I received nothing but good reports about a respectful teenager from neighbors and teachers. Being the youngest of five also meant all his siblings had moved out. He was now alone and struggling to find purpose without the benefit of his former confidants. Although paid for through his merit and the GI Bill, college approaching meant more good byes to new friends, separation from his dogs, and many unknowns. It took everyone by surprise and shook me to my very core. Our extended Air Force family helped us through that initial shock.

I am also concerned about the prevention care directed to the families. One area my family recognizes as a critical component to our time in the military is the connection families feel to the Air Force. Looking back, key spouse and sponsorship programs usually provided us a good assessment on how our time in a new unit was going to unfold. When a strong sponsor told us all about the local area, schools, the unit’s mission, and housing well before we arrived … we all looked forward to the adventure! When the key spouse reached out and actively kept my family aware of unit events and themselves abreast of our family’s challenges so they could assist … that was an awesome assignment for us! Do commanders recognize the importance to readiness of just these two programs? Are we missing ways to help our Airmen and their families? Do they feel connected before tragedy strikes? How many methods and avenues to mental, emotional, and spiritual care are not used because they are not part of an official Air Force “program”? How truly empowered are Airmen to seek care for their fellow Airmen and families, to include leaders?

So much to ponder and, like Goldfein, I do not possess the answers. My hope is that I asked enough questions to get Airmen at all levels to think and discuss. I do believe it comes down to taking the personal accountability of seeing everyone else as unique and valued. Treat others in accordance with that principle. Moreover, I rest in God’s sovereignty knowing Caleb is enjoying an Ultimate Frisbee game with angel Gabriel and the angels.

When I requested some prayer for the “Dealing with Suicide” session my wife sent me a response. I quoted her to all at the summit, “People will invest more deeply in something and be mentally strong if they know someone doesn’t just command, but cares.” It is not enough for our Airmen to understand the higher purpose. It is not enough for our Airmen to have the resources for the job. Our Airmen need to feel valued. They need to know they matter and are cared about as individuals. The same is true for all Airmen, their leaders, and their families.