The wingman concept revisited

  • Published
  • By Col. Jennifer Moore
  • 21st Operations Group commander
The last two weeks in Colorado Springs have been truly unforgettable. Never did I imagine that I would stand at the second floor window of my home, smell the smoke and watch the glow of an uncontrollable fire engulf homes across the foothills of our city. In front of my eyes, out my window and on every local TV channel, the unthinkable was happening. What started as a small fire was out of control destroying everything in its path and changing lives forever.

It strikes me that many of the problems Airmen in our Air Force and around our wing are experiencing are similar to that fire. The problems start small - credit card debt with limited income, relationship problems born of our high operational tempo and life's stressors, a tendency to drink too much. Before you know it, the small problem has turned into something so much bigger, with all the characteristics of a fire out of control -- ruining careers, impacting friends and family members, and consuming the people at the heart of the problem, even to the point of suicide.

And suicide is reaching levels of epidemic proportions in our Air Force and in the Department of Defense as a whole. According to the May 4 issue of Air Force Times, "More airmen killed themselves in the first three months of this year than in any other first quarter in the past decade." In fact, our Air Force suffered the loss of five Air Force members to suicide in the first two weeks of July alone. Suicide doesn't discriminate by age or race or gender. From the youngest Airman to a seasoned general officer, no one is exempt from the stressors that can lead to such a tragic choice.

These personal forest fires take a huge toll on our service. They weaken us, taking valuable, contributing members of our Air Force team and sidelining them, sometimes permanently, and they leave the people closest to them wondering why and how things ever got so out of control. We train our Airmen to boldly ask the question, "Are you thinking of hurting yourself or others?" By the time an Airman in distress reaches that point, the fire is already raging, and we have to do everything in our power to put it out. We sound the alarm, call in the reinforcements, and focus all our efforts to make the last minute save.

Just recently, the 21st Operations Group nearly lost one of our own to an attempted suicide. Many of us were shocked. How could this happen? "I never would have guessed," was a common sentiment when we heard the news. Truth is, there was a long, slow burn that preceded that incident and many people saw different warning signs. Each person thought he was being a good wingman by listening and befriending. But each person kept the problems to himself, and sometimes even enabled the destructive behavior with the best of intentions. Thankfully, the ultimate disaster was averted in this case, but it made me rethink what we really expect from one another. The points I'm about to make aren't new, but I ask you to look at them with fresh eyes and think about ways we can all be better wingmen.

Keep an eye out for trouble: The old saying goes, "Where there's smoke, there's fire." People try to communicate their problems when they're in distress. There are tell-tale signs and if you're alert, you'll see them. Keep an eye out for the first signs of trouble; unusual behavior, excessive drinking, change in personality, or someone asking you to keep his problems a secret. All of those behaviors should set off alarm bells in your mind.

Understand the impact: Know what's at risk when an Airman is in trouble and don't be afraid to step in. You might be tempted to think it's too personal, or you're sticking your nose into someone else's business. The truth is, once you know there's a problem, there are more people counting on you to act than just the person in trouble. The fire that destroys the individual touches many more lives including family, friends and coworkers. Acting quickly with the well-being of all involved in mind can keep the fire from growing out of control.

Don't try to handle it yourself: If you see a real fire starting, chances are you won't think to yourself, "I've got this. I can handle it." Of course not. You yell for help, call the fire department, sound the alarm. In the same way, when we see smoke from the personal fires burning, turn to others you trust for sound advice. Talk it out and ask for help. Tell someone in a position of leadership who you trust to do the right thing. Speak up, and be willing to risk a friendship to save a life.

Know the resources at your disposal: During the Waldo Canyon fire, the emergency called for all hands on deck. Fire fighters from around the region answered the call and the Wing and other local military organizations rallied to help in many different ways. Likewise, there's almost no end to the places you can turn for help when someone is in trouble. Friends, coworkers, chaplains, supervisors, Military OneSource, mental health providers, commanders, first sergeants, the list goes on. There are plenty of people who are willing to throw you a lifeline so you don't have to carry the burden of another's problem on your own.

Never underestimate your ability to make a difference: Smokey Bear is famous for saying, "Only you can prevent forest fires." When it comes to our friends and family, it only takes one person to change a life. That doesn't mean it will be easy, but it will be worth it. What if you sound a false alarm? A false alarm is much preferred to silence that may result in tragedy.

When you're out and about the city, take a look around you. You can't avoid the evidence of the recent fires. The scars on the hillside, the altered landscape and the changed lives of many in our wing will be reminders of the tragedy for years to come. Likewise, take a look around you at your friends, your family and your coworkers, and look for signs of fires that may be just beginning or others that have been slowly growing for some time. The loss of a single life is one too many. You and I can make a difference in the lives of those around us if we're willing to reach out, step in and speak up.