Today ends a 45-day window set for units to hold a “Resilience Tactical Pause” after Airmen suicide topped 78, up from 50 during the same reporting period last year.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein ordered commanders to use the opportunity to address the topic with Airmen at every level of their leadership. He stressed the importance of making this order effective in a Facebook post dated Aug. 1, “Make this time matter. Make it yours. We must take the time to listen, connect and address the issues that are shifting our teammates’ outlook from hopeful to hopeless.”
One of the most alarming facts surrounding current data is the Air Force is tracking to lose 150 Airmen to suicide in 2019. One thing that all of these suicides have in common? None of the Airmen were enrolled in the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program.
The program provides personalized restorative care from the moment an Airman asks for help, and then throughout the entire transformation back to duty, separation or retirement, according to its website. Initially, the program was geared toward treating combat wounded but evolved to include the ill and injured. However, there was still a growing need for Airmen facing invisible wounds — described as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or other cognitive, emotional, or behavioral conditions associated with trauma experienced by an individual — a reality AFW2 recognized and has been working to address.
In fact, three years ago, after a number of wounded warriors shared their own mental health stories at the Pentagon, the Invisible Wounds Initiative was born.
Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright says it is leadership’s responsibility to educate Airmen about the AFW2 program.
“It is our responsibility, from my level all the way down, to ensure that Airmen across our Air Force know and understand the benefits of the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program. More importantly, we need to encourage participation in these programs because what I have seen throughout all of my experience with this program is that the Airmen who were once in a really bad place have come to look at this program as therapy. They participate in the adaptive sports and resiliency events and it really becomes their “AHA” moment and changes the game for them,” Wright said.
Tony Jasso is an Action Officer with AFW2. He is responsible for overseeing outreach, marketing, communications, adaptive sports and resiliency programs.
“We can grow an Airman, develop them as leaders, deploy them and discipline them, because all of that training has been provided for us. But we don’t necessarily get training on how to care for them,” he said.
He shared that awareness is one of the barriers to getting more airmen to enroll in the program. There is also a culture of fear that if you speak up, you’ll lose your ability to remain on active duty. AFW2 is working hard to change the notion that affiliation with AFW2 means you automatically transition out of the military. The first goal of AFW2 is always to return Airmen to duty. Jasso stated that the earlier AFW2 gets involved in an Airman’s recovery, the better the results have been to make return to duty possible.
He says the tactical pause ordered by Goldfein is an opportunity for everyone to slow down in a moment in time to have real conversations.
“Get to know the struggles of others and those that our airmen are having,” he said.
He adds there is a connection we need to establish with each other — Airman to Airman — between all of the ranks.
“There is a human part to the armed service, establishing those connections can help us from where we are right now. You can’t complete the mission without the people,” he said.
Marsha Gonzales, Chief of Warrior Care Support Branch, focuses on making the AFW2 programs what Airmen and caregivers need, rather than just a standard checklist.
“We believe in a very personalized approach, which makes our program different. You have to know that every person’s journey to recovery is different,” she said.
She retired from the Air Force after 22 years and knows what it feels like to always put the mission before everything, even your own health. She did it herself until she had a heart attack after being on active duty for 17 years. Even as she fought for her life, she tried to hide it from her command, fearing they would no longer see her as valuable.
Gonzales said that Airmen aren’t trained to ask for help and that’s the biggest barrier. She and others at AFW2 are trying to help create a culture where you can seek help and recover with dignity. She also shared that Gen. Goldfein once told her that when their airplanes come home, they go in for maintenance but the Airmen don’t have an opportunity to. They have to be able to. Thanks to Air Force Wounded Warrior Program, they can.
Visit Air Force Wounded Warrior Program to learn more about resources and how to access programs.Read comments