Investing in Resiliency

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. William Sanders
  • 4th Space Control Squadron

A family member commits suicide; your friend gets grievously injured; you have to put your dog down. What if they all happened to you within the same month? My family experienced all of those things in August of this year. I want to share with you how we invested in our resilience before those things happened, and how we responded when the investments weren’t enough to overcome those challenges.

My wife and I routinely check the “how to build resiliency” boxes:  proper sleep, healthy diet, regular exercise, church, meditation, and community.  These deposits in our “resiliency account” help mitigate day-to-day stressors. Sometimes we have to make withdrawals from that resiliency account that exceed our deposits. Those withdrawals may be from chronic stress, family emergencies, or some other crisis in our lives. If those cumulative stressors exceed our ability to bounce back the way we expect, it’s time to get help. I was in just such a position earlier this summer. 

Command is a tough job for the entire family. We were not coping as well as we could with the chronic stress of the job plus some tension in our extended family. Angelia and I noticed that we were short-tempered with each other, our 10-year old son, and our friends. We were not at our best.  After Angelia and I talked, my first step was to talk to my first sergeant (yes, the first shirt helps commanders too!)

Sometime later, a friend pointed out to me that I was “off,” so I decided to schedule time with the chaplain. Afterward, I felt lighter. Coincidentally, that conversation with the chaplain preceded 10 days of planned leave. I thought vacation would be all I needed in order to top off my resiliency reserves.  Unfortunately, our family had challenges ahead that would require more resiliency withdrawals than anticipated.

Our leave started out perfectly: driving through a wooded road on our way to a serene lakeside cabin in Maine. But, as we pulled up to the cabin that first day, my wife received the heartbreaking news that her stepdad, a man whom she loved as a father, committed suicide. To complicate matters, Angelia was named as executor of his estate and had to work through many of the initial decisions while we were on “vacation” with my side of the family. All while she was processing her own grief. 

Two days after returning from Maine, my mom called to tell me one of my childhood friends was gravely injured in Afghanistan. While his extended care team pulled off a miracle to save his life, he is now a triple amputee with an extremely long road ahead. Growing up, he was like my younger brother. It hit me hard. 

Just a few days later, our dog, Jack, became unexpectedly very ill. Jack was 16 years old, and an integral part of our family, so we were devastated to say goodbye to him.

Each situation on its own might be tolerable, but together, these events completely depleted our resiliency account. Knowing we needed help, we committed right away to see a Military and Family Life Counselor. My wife and I both found it to be extremely helpful in processing what had happened over the preceding weeks. Our counselor was a great listener and offered practical advice to help us move forward with the month we had just endured. 

While we probably would have survived that rough time without help, I’m confident it would have been more difficult. I have no doubt that by acknowledging we needed help, knowing what resources were available, and reaching out, we bounced back quicker and are stronger as a family.

We all need help from time to time. To highlight that it is okay to get help, I chose to share this story with my squadron in my September commander’s call. We could not have anticipated the response, but we were overwhelmed by the support from our extended military family. We are extremely grateful for the many people that reached out to us.  We are still working through everything as a family, but we are much further along thanks to all the support we received. 

Invest in your resiliency every day and build up your account. Recognize when your resiliency withdrawals start to exceed your deposits, as mine did, and get help. At some point this happens to all of us. Look for signs that you aren’t bouncing back as high as you should and tap into the world-class resources every Airman has at their disposal. We don’t go through life alone, there is always a team around us: friends, family, and wingmen. I think I speak for all of your fellow Airmen when I say that we are here for you as so many of you were here for me and my family.