Building resiliency through competition

Lt. Col. David Case, 50th Space Communication Squadron commander

Lt. Col. David Case, 50th Space Communications Squadron commander

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Air Force Instruction 90-506, Comprehensive Airman Fitness, focuses heavily on the wingman concept (Airmen helping Airmen), community aid programs and eliminating the stigma associated with seeking help.  These excellent programs ensure our Airmen remain fit physically, mentally, socially and spiritually.   I picked up a Resiliency pamphlet recently that lists ten organizations and more than twenty programs available to help in times of trouble.  I am impressed with all the programs available to aid Airmen faced with extreme challenges in life.  But instead of waiting for circumstances to get out of an Airman's control, as can happen in everyone's life, there are a couple of avenues we, as supervisor and leaders, can do to build resiliency and avoid dependence.

While contemplating this subject, I thought back to events during my life that played a role in my development and relatively successful career so far.  One such endeavor was high school football.  I played for three years at a small Catholic school, Mount Assumption Institute; the Mounties.  We held the loathsome title of the longest losing streak in New York State history.  The coaches tried screaming while we ran plays, hit sleds, and did wind sprints.  They tried talking through the plays, repeatedly; explaining each time what we did right and what we needed to work on.  We did two-a-days for weeks, spring and summer, even when not sanctioned as official practices.  We studied our play books more than school work and sacrificed holidays and weekends.  Coaches suited up with us on a few occasions, running live plays (meaning we could hit the coaches) to motivate us.  Nothing seemed to work, until...Sept. 27, 1985.  Pouring down rain, behind 14-0 with eight minutes left in the game, the Mounties put it all together and won 16-14.  In the newspaper the next day, Coach Rock was quoted as saying, "They [Mountie players] will feel like different people after tonight because they earned what happened here tonight."  He was right; to this date, I firmly believe, regardless of the odds or number of previous failures, there is always a chance at success.  We could have quit, and some did; we could have slacked off at practice, but we did not; coaches could have given up on the players, but they didn't.  We pushed ourselves and each other to overcome pain (physical and emotional), exhaustion, humiliation and despair.  This is also when I finally understood what the Brothers, instructing us in school, meant when they said, "God helps those who help themselves."

There are several ways we can help our Airmen help themselves.  First, ensure Airmen are prepared and have the opportunity to attend programs that will provide them with the skills to cope with adversity.  During commanders' calls, brown bag lunches or off-sites, invite the experts from Airmen and Family Readiness to present a topic that will provide the tools needed to cope with stressful situations.  Or, bring in an experienced person to give first-hand knowledge on how to deal with challenges life presents.  I recall Lt. Col. Chad Igl briefing at the AFSPC Commander's Conference on his experiences in coping with two deaths within the 3rd Space Operations Squadron.  Not only did he provide lessons learned, the personal perspective shared built confidence that, as new commanders, we will be ready if called upon to lead our units through tragedy.  Another example and possibly underutilized resource is the civilian workforce.  Many in government civil service (and contract work) are retirees and have faced the same challenges Airmen today face.  While the military lifestyle has changed through the years, this hearty group has faced family separations, death, divorce, financial issues and other hardships.  Yet I've noticed when preparing our young Airmen to face similar challenges, we are not leveraging the experiences of the previous military generation to mentor our Airmen.  Preparation is key to successfully overcoming adversity unscathed and stronger than before.   Preparation is in line with a 50th Space Wing priority, "Prepare for tomorrow's fight" and borrowing from a recent presentation by Command Chief Master Sgt. John Bentvegna, "What are you doing to prepare yourself for the next challenge?"

Next, I believe there is value in letting Airmen struggle a little.  This goes against our natural instinct as Wingmen to jump to the aid of fellow Airmen as trained from day one to do.  We can train and provide tools needed to prepare Airmen for the next challenge all day, every day, but there is no better teacher than first-hand experience.  When indicators of poor or diminishing physical, mental, social, and spiritual fitness begin appearing, as Wingmen, should our initial reaction be to ensure the Airman seeks help from one of the many aid/assistance programs available?  Or should we remain cognizant of the Airman's struggle, standing by should it inch toward overwhelming?  My opinion; let the Airman struggle, put the training and education previously provided and dig into their own intestinal fortitude to handle the situation, solve the problem on their own.  This might mean they seek aid from programs established for these purposes, but the decision alone to seek aid empowers the Airman.   Here's where we, as commanders, supervisors, First Sergeants, and Wingmen, must learn balance.  We should let Airmen own their problem and their solution, provided that we've done our due diligence through mentoring, and be close enough to prevent them from being overwhelmed.

In fact, I propose, it is the art of learning balance that strengthens not only individual Airmen, but the entire unit.  That way the next time we call upon our Airmen during adverse times, exercises, CCRIs, Vehicle Emergencies, or base flooding, we know they are prepared mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually to roll up their sleeves and say, "Let's do this!"