TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – The enemy gains its power in a silent world, and the recent results are becoming increasingly loud.
The Air Force loses more Airmen to this enemy than combat. So far in 2019, nearly 80 have made the choice to end their lives. At the current pace, the total could reach 150-160 by the close of this year.
The enemy is hopelessness.
For the Tyndall AFB team, identifying the enemy has taken on a heightened sense of urgency since Hurricane Michael’s landfall on Oct. 10, 2018. The storm not only leveled the base, it wreaked havoc on the lives of Airmen, civilian employees and family members displaced and impacted. Since then, the struggle to recover has not only been a physical one, but increasingly mental and emotional as well.
“We are dealing with the aftermath of a horrendous storm, but I also believe the Air Force is dealing with a lot of ‘storms’ that have the capacity to knock us out if we don’t change our approach to the issue of hopelessness/connectedness/camaraderie,” said Karen White, staff attorney, with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center Judge Advocate office.
In August 2019, the Air Force Chief of Staff directed all units to implement a Resilience Tactical Pause. The primary focus of the initiative was to strengthen connections and share the load in supporting one another. The AFCEC team at Tyndall began a program of small group tactical pauses designed to reconnect teammates and build resiliency.
“It’s important to encourage others and look out for signs (not just the obvious ones we are always told about),” said Lt. Col. James Duke, deputy director, AFCEC Readiness Directorate. “Being in the military is stressful. With deployments, PCS’s and regular job stressors tied in, it can be overwhelming. The key is to find ways to overcome these stresses and provide connectedness with those around you.”
Tom Adams, a mechanical engineer at AFCEC, said the stress caused by Hurricane Michael is the core of his day-to-day struggles, which include: financial worries, the inability to focus on work assignments and the constant agitation of always having hurricane recovery tasks to perform.
“None of us know why we took a direct hit by a Category 5 hurricane,” said Adams. “But I believe we will come out of this stronger and more resilient than ever.”
According to Col. Timothy Dodge, AFCEC deputy director, when the drive into, and away from, work each day involves seeing the same dense piles of trash and debris that have now been lying around for over one year, it tends to wear on the strongest of individuals. Adding to that mountain of stress, is the seemingly endless routine of trying to pick up the pieces of what was once whole.
“There’s the daily grind of going to my house after work, taking off during work to take care of things, working late at night to make up for that, so to speak,” said Dodge. “We’re always getting the work done, but how do you juggle it all – and it winds up being a full day of work and home repair. It’s extremely trying to do that day after day after day.”
Day after day – it’s the routine for not only those recovering from Hurricane Michael by traveling to their homes from rental properties in some cases over an hour away, but also those who struggle in silence because of workplace and personal stereotypes and expectations.
“In my 30-plus years with the Air Force as active duty and as a civilian, I worked very hard to keep up the facade that things were ok…even when they weren’t,” said White.
Trying to check off all the boxes on a daily basis is a common struggle for adults not only professionally but personally. Not to mention, the feelings of “not being enough” are common.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), feelings of not being enough stem from “education on emotions” and how “not being enough is a byproduct of an environment that was insufficient.”
Each day, Dodge walks the AFCEC building in an effort to make contact with as many individuals as he can – to talk to them, get to know them. It’s a noble task to try and reach everyone.
“I don’t think it matters what environment you’re in, you need to be aware, you need to know your people in order to care about what’s going on with your people,” said Dodge. “This is where leadership by walking around comes in, which I try to do a lot – don’t always get to everyone unfortunately.”
Leaving oneself open to criticism among peers and members of leadership is yet another contributing factor that feeds the idea of not quite measuring up to the standard. According to Duke, leaning on loved ones is an effective route to finding support.
“I think it’s more of a feeling of vulnerability. How you interact with family is usually different than with coworkers,” he said. “By showing vulnerability in the military, it might give the impression that you’re weak. Whereas if you show your family that you’re vulnerable, your family would have a tendency to help you through it.”
Although the idea of seeking help is becoming more widely accepted, there remains an old-school mentality that pride and toughness are the pillars of fighting through mental and emotional adversity.
“I think the societal stigma that still exists surrounding mental health also plays into the issue,” said White. “It is not just in the Air Force that people resist mental health care because they fear that the ramifications will be more than what they can ‘afford.’ When our cultural norm is that if you are experiencing a mental health issue you go see a professional who can assist, I think that people will begin to seek help before they get to a place of helplessness/hopelessness.”
Breaking the ice, forming small groups to venture outside the workplace to manifest connections and no longer suffering in silence – those were just some of the objectives of the Tactical Pause. In an area where the healing process is organically playing itself out on a daily basis, the initiative represents a giant leap in the right direction.
“Hurricane Michael made this even more impactful for us. I’ve heard that from several people,” said Dodge. “Having this tactical pause has opened the conversation.”