Tag Archives: relationships

Lessons in compassion

By Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro
51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs

“Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.” – Quote from Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1954 film, Sansho the Bailiff

On Aug. 20, 2012, I woke up at 2:30 a.m. My bed, usually crowded with my wife, Cece, and two cats, Miki and Lulu, was empty. Down the hallway of the one-floor, three-bedroom house we rented in Cabot, Arkansas, I heard noise from the kitchen. When I went to see what the noise was, I found my 23-year-old wife on the floor and erratically painting on a canvas.

The painting was of an Airman Battle Uniform next to a bottle of prescribed depression medication. Streaks and spots of deep red paint blotched the canvas, which also had gashes and holes littered in it because Cece had been stabbing it with a kitchen knife.

“What the (obscenity) are you doing?” I asked.

She looked up at me, her body shaking, our two cats flanking her sides. I saw a hurt face and fear-riddled eyes, scorched red from sleep deprivation and sobbing. With our little family together in the kitchen that morning, “I’m sorry,” was all she could say.

Lessons in Compassion

Months earlier, Cece was sent to stay for a week at the Bridgeway, a mental health hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas. Three weeks later, she went back for another week for what eventually became a diagnosis of severe anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

An Airman herself, recent military-related stress of deployments, family separation and being over worked, coupled with the loss of her uncle and past personal traumas, led to my wife’s sleeping problems. She lived in a constant state of fear. Unable to sleep at night, she’d only shake helplessly in the bed next to me. These mounting pressures for my wife led to a serious conflict in our relationship for the first time since we met in 2007. I was seeing a different landscape of what had always been a very happy woman.

Strife at work, a splintered relationship at home, being put on depression medication and sleeping pills, being taken from her home twice for treatment, being whispered about by co-workers, being unambiguously accused of faking her condition by her first sergeant and awaiting the upcoming staff sergeant promotion results sent Cece into a severe panic that morning.

After my wife apologized, I talked her into getting up. We picked up the canvas and painting supplies, but I kept thinking about the red streaks of paint all over the floor and that I’d have to clean it up later. I then made Cece lay in bed until it was time for her to get dressed for her 4 a.m. shift.

The rest of that day reverberates in my conscience. The memories echo in my mind like the lingering twang of a released guitar string.

I received a call from my wife’s co-worker at 6 a.m., telling me to get to their workplace immediately. I found Cece pale-faced, shaking and not wearing boots or belt. I remember taking her to mental health and being unable to sit in on the confidential session. Cece was discharged from mental health and sent back to work. Then, we found out she made staff sergeant, but we didn’t feel like celebrating like we did when I made it two years earlier. I remember a silent car ride home.

As soon as we got to the house, I tried to help Cece sleep, but I couldn’t quell her anxiety. We lay in bed, me holding her and telling her to go to sleep while she shook and whimpered in pain. I silently scorned her condition, constantly thinking about how much effort I had to make for her and how her problems were affecting my behavior. It was a sweet relief when Cece finally stopped shaking and slept. When I finally went to sleep that night, I was glad such an emotionally taxing day was over.

Afterward, things didn’t become easier for us. We kept having arguments, and I became increasingly agitated with my wife, who was still suffering, physically and emotionally. Our problems escalated until one night, after getting off a 4 a.m. – 1 p.m. shift, Cece hadn’t come home by 6:30 p.m., and we argued via text message. At one point I threatened to leave her and told her I couldn’t handle her condition anymore.

After she got home, Cece told me she was thinking about killing herself, and that she thought about intentionally crashing her car into a tree on one of Arkansas’ back roads. Talking to a person so heartlessly while they suffered still shames me. We once again lay on the bed, her unable to sleep or relax and me holding her. I remember vividly what she said to me, “I just need you to help me right now. You know I’ll help you when you need it.”

She was right. During our five years together there were times when I was, at best, difficult to get along with and at worst insufferable.

I’ve always had a confrontational and contentious nature. This makes it hard for me to connect with people, and in my early 20s I often felt lonely and alienated, which led to an unhappiness that I often projected onto other people. Yet, even in my worst moods, I remember my wife holding onto me, joking with me, making me smile or laugh. She may have never known, but her signature smile, a beaming, full teeth-baring grin, often elevated me from the depths of negativity. So when she pleaded with me so bluntly, I couldn’t feel anything but shame and compassion.

This proved a turning point for us, and after that night I tried to act with mercy or compassion toward her struggle. For all of us, life has summits and cellars. No one is exempt from adversity and at times we all need kindness. After that day, I was committed to being supportive before critical and being helpful before skeptical. Things started to improve for both of us.

That’s not to imply everything changed right away. Mental conditions don’t evaporate or disappear because of good intentions. It takes commitment and patience to persevere the brutalities of depression, anxiety and PTSD. My wife still has hard days and difficult moments like everyone else. Traumatic memories still haunt her, but our efforts to keep an open, honest, nonjudgmental and supportive dialogue about ourselves helps. Just a year later, I was confident enough in her recovery to volunteer for an unaccompanied tour to South Korea. Cece is now out of the Air Force and going to school full time, and we’re both happily pursuing our goals and supporting each other as much as we ever have.

So why should anyone care about this highly personal story? Because there are many people like my wife and many people like me. There are people suffering, scarred, afflicted, overburdened and unfairly judged — unsure if something is wrong with them or if they can even ask for help. There are also people in a position to help, but unsure of what to do.

For the last 65 years, May has been designated as Mental Health Awareness Month. For a lot of us these monthly observances, of which there are plenty, are easy to dismiss or blithely endorse. It usually takes a personal stake in the issue to really care about it. Not just my wife, but personal experiences with my family have left me an advocate for the accepting treatment of suffering people. That means not only encouraging those who need it to seek help, but also encouraging others to treat the suffering with patience and kindness, even if they can’t understand them.

I’ve seen the consequences when people don’t get support, and while there’s no catchall method to stop someone from hurting him or herself, treating all people with dignity and compassion is the right place to start. Sometimes we don’t understand the influence we cast on others, how a kind action or showing genuine concern can seriously alter somebody’s day for good and how meanness, cruelty or indifference can do the opposite. It’s possible that kindness is all it can take to convince somebody they can ask for help, or that they’re valuable enough to be cared about.

Cece tells me the hardest thing about asking for help is the inevitable stigma that comes with it. She used to be afraid to talk about her feelings and problems because it was embarrassing and perceived as weakness. Also, personal cases of depression are hard for others to understand.

Much effort has been made to promote the truth that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, but this gives little comfort to people when they’re being ostracized at work or being treated different by friends and family. This is why all of us have a responsibility to value and care for the people around us. It’s important to treat those seeking help kindly, because despite progressive efforts, negative attitudes still exist.

However, I’m not writing this to ask you to change your mind about mental health. If you truly believe someone is faking a condition or if you think they’re too sensitive or weak for asking for help, chances are I’m not going to convince you otherwise.

Instead, compassion is my gospel. Treat those who are suffering, even if you’re skeptical, with mercy.

There’s no simple solution to the ailments of mental health. No acronyms, pills, PowerPoint slides, books, slogans or training can cure anxiety, depression or PTSD. There is, however, a universally good starting point, which is being respectful and compassionate to everyone, but especially to those who share their struggles and seek help.

If we do this, the worst thing we can do is be excessively nice. The best we can do may be to bring someone back from the abyss. Kindness, mercy and compassion are traits I value in people above all else. Her abundance of these is one of the reasons I fell in love with Cece when we were dating in 2008, and her enduring and helpful nature has inspired me and helped me be a better person ever since.

Celebrated poet John Donne poignantly wrote: “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.”

As human beings, Americans, service members and Airmen, we should not take the suffering of our own lightly or callously, but as a detriment to our family. Every single loss diminishes the whole, and every single person in the world is important.

In our living room, centered above our couch, we proudly display the painting Cece attacked with a knife. Its presence reminds me that we all have flaws and need support in our weakest moments. As individual human beings, the mistakes we make and scars we give and take can’t be undone any more than knife punctures can be erased from a canvas. We can never take back what we say and do. The wounds we endure never completely heal. However, as someone’s fellow human being, we have the chance to help by supporting each other. The most important thing in life isn’t what you did or what you’ll do, but what you’re willing to do now. There’s no nobler impulse in mankind than mercy, and there’s an abundance of people in the world who need it. Help them.

PHOTO: Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro and Cece Guadalupe Ortiz days before their wedding Jan. 3, 2011, in Dover, Del. They first met in December 2007, began dating June 1, 2008, and got married Jan. 8, 2011. (Courtesy photo by Cynthia Ticas)

What’s your story? Aug. 6, 2012

 

Suicide affects more than one

By Col. Jonathan Sutherland
50th Network Operations Group

I remember the phone call three years ago like it happened an hour ago. My sister called to tell me our dad had died unexpectedly in his sleep. Among the many emotions I encountered shortly thereafter, I distinctly remember reflecting on my dad’s Air Force service as I watched his flag being folded by sharp Air Force honor guard members.

My dad only served four years in the Air Force, but my childhood was filled with stories about his service and the people with whom he served. He rarely spoke of what he did, but focused more on his supervisors, peers and the few subordinates he had. He still knew them by name, where they were from and had a story or two to tell about each of them. After more than 20 years out of the Air Force, he still kept in touch with those Airmen. Frankly, his stories and my excitement about wanting to be part of an organization like that were the main reasons I enlisted in the Air Force a few months after graduating from high school.

I came in the Air Force during an era before computers and cell phones. I knew everyone in the office and nearly everything about them. It was natural. To get something done, you walked to their desk or developed a relationship with them over the phone. I knew just by the sound of their voice or the way they walked into the office what kind of day they were having. I didn’t have to rely on them to post their status on Facebook to understand how they were feeling. Of course, Facebook was still 20 years away.

In today’s digital age, times have certainly changed. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a cyber guy and a huge proponent of technology, so I’m excited to see where we’re headed into the future. However, the one area that we’ve sacrificed is personal relationships and the ability to “read” our fellow Airmen. How many times have you sent an e-mail or text to the Airman sitting in your own office? How well do you know your co-workers, your boss and your subordinates? Do you know where they’re from? Do you know what they do off-duty?

As a young squadron commander in England, I had to pick up the pieces of a devastated unit after a bright, young senior airman took her own life. She was popular, outgoing and an impressive Airman, having won the squadron Airman of the quarter award earlier that year. After her death, we learned how much stress she had in her life and how many signs were out there if people would have just known her better. No one wanted to ask because they didn’t want to “get into her business.” Of course after her death, they all wished they would have.

Tragically, our Air Force is barreling down a path to set a record for suicides in 2012. The previous record for suicides was set in 2010 when 99 fellow Airmen took their own lives. We are well on our way to smash that record this year. In most of these cases, the signs were there, but no one was watching for them. How many of our wingmen are deployed, have moved or worked a different shift schedule? If wingmen aren’t watching out for each other, who is? If you don’t know much about your co-workers, how will you recognize abnormal behavior from normal? It’s incumbent upon each one of us to get to know our fellow Airmen. Step out from behind your desk, walk to the next desk and just ask a few questions about their life. Sure, it might be a little invasive, but it also may reveal the struggles they’re facing.

Twenty-five years from now, when you’re talking to your kids and grandkids about your Air Force life, what will you tell them? Let’s hope you go overboard and tell them about each person you worked with, how they were unique and how much you still stay in touch with them. Everyone has a story to tell. let’s hope you get out from behind your computer to hear them all. I look forward to hearing yours too.

Image: Suicide is often spoken about as if one person is affected, but only the individuals left behind truly understand the full impact of that decision. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Airman 1st Class Joshua Green)

Are you a servant-leader?

By Chief Master Sgt. Gregory Warren
62nd Airlift Wing command chief

Chief Master Sergeant Gregory WarrenThe phrase “servant leader” was brought into the mainstream back in 1970 in an essay published by Mr. Robert Greenleaf. In this writing, he defines a servant-leader as someone who “is a servant first.” Servant leadership isn’t about positions and titles. Instead, it is an attitude that says people and relationships are important, valuable and essential to mission success.

What does it mean to me? It’s very simple. Putting the needs of your fellow Airmen first. Is this convenient? No. Is it rewarding? Absolutely! There is nothing more satisfying than to see someone you’ve worked with succeed. That is what personally drives me in the capacity I serve.

We often talk about getting to know one another and being good Wingmen to each other. For those in supervisory positions, we emphasize getting eyeball-to-eyeball with your Airmen, daily if possible, to identify when something might not be quite right with them.

For the servant-leader this isn’t a chore, it is an imperative embedded in their DNA; they genuinely care about others and know that mission success absolutely depends on individual successes of those around them.

In my opinion, some great examples of servant-leaders throughout history may be Jesus, Ghandi, Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr. These leaders absolutely put the needs of others before their own and, because of it, are considered some of the greatest, most beloved leaders to have ever lived.

An unknown author once said, “A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader, a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.”

John C. Maxwell, famous leadership mentor and pastor said this, “True leadership must be for the benefit of the followers, not to enrich the leader.”

These two quotes are at the heart of servant-leadership and define your leaders here on McChord Field.

In closing, I’ll say that leadership to me isn’t about the number of stripes on your sleeve or the shape or color of the rank on your shoulders; it is about serving others. No matter what capacity you serve in. I believe that success isn’t defined by how much you personally achieve but on how much those you influence achieve. Does this define you as a leader?

Photo: Chief Master Sgt. Gregory Warren is the 62nd Airlift Wing command chief at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)