Tag Archives: resiliency

Airman reveals tough past to help fellow Airmen with future

By Master Sgt. Matthew McGovern
Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs

140305-F-YN203-002bIt was 1999, and a young weather officer appeared to have everything going for him: a wife, Linda, two handsome teenage sons whom he adored, J.R. and Ryan, and a promising Air Force career for this prior-enlisted officer.

On the surface, things appeared to be going well. However, pressure was mounting that no one could see.

With overwhelming pressure at work, unresolved marital issues, separation from his family and agonizing feelings of extreme hopelessness, on March 11, 1999, Capt. Robert Swanson, decided to end his life.

Thankfully, he survived his attempt and eventually received help through Air Force therapists who want Airmen to persevere during difficult times and seek help before suicide seems like an option.

Fifteen years later, Swanson, now a colonel and the Pacific Air Forces chief of weather operations, knows suicide wasn’t the right answer to his problems and is encouraging Airmen to seek help before life’s issues get too overwhelming.

He found not only the hope he craved, but also life-renewing reasons to keep on living.

“If I could tell this young captain anything, I’d tell him to hang on; the future gets better,” he explained. “I’d tell him he’d miss the opportunity to see his boys grow into young men, and that he’d miss the opportunity to see the pain and agony subside and the chance to see the sunshine again.”

His path to healing was not easy. He met with a psychiatrist almost daily for six months for intense therapy sessions designed to put him back on the path to a healthy state of being.

“I read your file; you’re really good at telling us everything we want to hear,” his psychiatrist told him. “I’ve seen your IQ and you’re smarter than I am. Nothing I’m going to do, or say, is going to get through to you, until you are willing to take a chance, and let me try to help you.”

Only when he was ready to accept his psychiatrist’s advice did he start to heal — and the healing came almost immediately.

“We got rid of the anti-depressants,” Swanson said. “I hated them, and they really interfered with me making real progress.”

His psychiatrist taught him how to look at the world realistically; how to examine different events in his life, sort through his reactions to these events and figure out what is normal behavior and what emotions are distorted.

“People who are depressed have a distorted view of the world,” Swanson explained. “For example, if a depressed person breaks a glass, they feel terrible, like an utter failure as if nothing is ever going to work again properly.”

Since 1999, Swanson learned how to face life’s challenges head on and understands that negative feelings like anger, depression and guilt don’t result from bad things that happen to him, but from the way he thinks about them.

He learned to make changes on his road to happiness including remarrying and accomplishing many of his life-long goals, including earning his Ph.D., completing more than 20 marathons, witnessing his sons graduate from college and achieving the rank of colonel.

“I’m at the happiest point in my life now and I want to show others that they also can make it through and be happy again,” he said.

Swanson went to making the hardest decisions of his life as a colonel — to go public about his suicide attempts in hope of possibly reaching someone struggling with overwhelming emotional pain.

“I’ve been thinking about coming forward for quite some time,” Swanson said. “I can’t help but feel that one of the reasons I’m here, and why I survived two suicide attempts, is to make a difference in someone else’s life.”

With the uncertainty sequestration has on the Air Force, and the ongoing force-shaping decisions affecting every Airman, he thought this was a critical time to come forward.

“I know our Airmen are worried about what will happen next with their careers, will they survive force shaping and if not how it will it affect them and their loved ones,” Swanson said. “It is to be expected that Airmen may be a little anxious, depressed, sad and overwhelmed with emotion and not know exactly how to handle it. Some may even reach the point that I reached on March 11, 1999, when I tried to take my own life — this is why I have decided to come forward.”

Lt. Col. Andrew Cruz, the PACAF chief of mental health services, is hopeful that more Airmen will seek assistance when needed.

“It’s important to understand that seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of courage and strength,” Cruz said. “The Air Force is doing its best to change the stigma of mental health, primarily through our communication efforts and how it’s characterized. The mental health clinic is just one resource. People can access military family life consultants, Military OneSource, chaplains, behavioral health providers in patient centered clinics, and many other national and local help resources.”

Swanson encourages all Airmen to remember to keep wingman communication lines open and to take the opportunity to seek help from chaplains, mental health, and other trained therapists, if needed — for yourself or others.

“The right mechanism to receive help is different for everybody. It’s finding that right person and getting to the point where you accept there may be an alternative future,” he explained. “Not every psychiatrist, psychologist or chaplain is going to be the right person for that. You’ve got to connect with your therapist, and sometimes it may take similar backgrounds or personalities to make this happen.”

Suicide is a decision that can’t be undone and Swanson is proof that those feelings of depression and hopelessness can be overcome with the right help — life does get better.

“What I know for sure is that suicide is a permanent fix to short-term problems,” Swanson said. “But I can promise you, that if you work hard at changing how you view the challenges we all face in life, you can get through anything — and I mean anything. So I encourage everyone who is a part of our Air Force family to seek the help they need to get them back on the road to a healthier outlook on life.”

The Air Force wants all Airmen to seek help early before life’s problems become overwhelming and lead to distress.

For more information about suicide awareness and prevention, call the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 or text 836255 or visit http://www.afms.af.mil/suicideprevention.

PHOTO: Col. Robert Swanson recently came forward to express his desire to testify of a time in which he attempted to end his own life earlier in his Air Force career. Swanson said it’s critical that Airmen keep communication lines open, and to seek out help from a source that works for them and that they can connect with. Swanson is the Pacific Air Forces chief of weather operations at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. (U.S. Air Force illustration by Staff Sgt. Nathan Allen/Released)

I was determined to live

By Airman 1st Class Samantha Saulsbury
460th Space Wing Public Affairs

I don’t mean “the parachute opened in just the knick of time as I plummeted to the Earth” kind of save.

I was failing college classes and getting into trouble. I didn’t care if my decisions led to jail or death. I was too busy recklessly living in the moment while not giving a thought to the future. I knew I needed to make a decision.
So I raised my right hand and took that leap of faith as my parents did.

The Air Force taught me the discipline I needed to live a meaningful life again. I was finally exposed to my purpose. I was instilled with the core values and learned how to live with ambition. I began to live not only for myself, but for the men and women standing beside me. Most importantly, I was given the tools to be successful, and I learned success requires a great deal of resiliency.

Air Force bases around the world designate at least an entire day each year strictly to learn about and practice resiliency. It’s been drilled into my head since the day I stepped off the bus at basic training with the staff sergeants’ screams introducing me to military life. I’ve heard the four pillars of Comprehensive Airmen Fitness over and over.

So why do I care? And, more importantly, why would I write about something I could recite in my sleep? Because we never know how we are going to react to something until it happens. We can plan for every scenario, but until it unfolds, we have no idea how we will react. I believe it is resiliency that helped me plan for the challenges I thought I might never face.

Resiliency is the ability to return to original form after being bent, compressed or stretched to our breaking points. As Airmen, we are constantly encouraged to become stronger by creating a balance of the four pillars: mental, physical, social and spiritual. I know that I must be able to care for myself before I could care for others.

As I transitioned into adulthood, I was disappointed in the 18-year-old I saw in the mirror. Looking back, I know it could have been worse, and others may have traveled more difficult paths, but everyone handles circumstances differently, and it was enough to spiral me into a depression. I realized I needed help.

Now, I practice resiliency on a regular basis. Whether it is working out, volunteering or doing anything that simply brings me joy, I am able to create a much more stable frame of mind. When something devastating might happen to me again, I know it will take everything I can muster to get up and keep going. I know now that being resilient is my only defense against life’s guaranteed hiccups.

I write not only to be an example of the effects of resiliency, but in hopes that others can find strength within themselves as well. One of the greatest things about resiliency is that it’s never too late to build it.

I was taught how to stand up against life’s curve balls, and, for that, I credit the Air Force with saving my life.

Asking for help is courageous

Airmen demonstrate ACE: ask, care, and escort.
by Command Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Mazzone
6th Air Mobility Wing

In the 1990s, it was not uncommon for an Airman to hear the phrase: “Suck it up!” It was also rare to find the supervisor who would encourage Airmen to seek help to work through mental health concerns. It seemed the senior noncommissioned officers were worried more about maintaining the appearance of a strong and ready force. Unbeknownst to them, they were raising Airmen who would be exactly what they wanted: hard core NCOs who were afraid to show emotion, and even worse, afraid to get help. We have the opportunity to break the cycle. Are you up for the challenge?

In 2004, a technical sergeant found himself sitting in a corner of a darkened room in the back of his house, sobbing. He was alone, and his life had just fallen out from under his feet. For over 30 hours he sat there, cried there and slept there. He didn’t eat and he didn’t drink. He simply stared at the emptiness in front of him, wondering how this had happened. How had his life gone from seemingly normal to quiet chaos in less than a day? He didn’t know how to ask for help.

He was in no condition to dissect his situation, as he lacked rational thought and had just sustained fresh, deep emotional wounds. Sitting in that corner, he challenged his faith, asking how his God could allow something so wicked to occur. He challenged himself, wondering if he didn’t do enough to keep this from happening. The phone rang as he sat there. He thought about unplugging it, but it was too far away. He wondered about “making the pain go away,” but instead he rolled over to fall asleep yet again. This time he awoke to the sound of his name being yelled in his own house. He never cried out “I’m back here; please help me!”

When they found him, he was a wreck. His legs were weak and he didn’t want to move. He just wanted his life back … he wanted his family back. He wanted things to be the way they were before, even though he knew that was not possible. One person walked him to the living room couch. Another got him some water. They sat there in silence with him, waiting patiently, hoping he would say something. He was ashamed and didn’t speak. He couldn’t stomach the thought of people knowing about this, even if they were his friends. He felt they wouldn’t be able to do anything for him, and he never asked them to find someone who could help.

One of them contacted the first sergeant, who arrived soon after. Together, they started doing things for him … simple things. They turned on the shower, they got him clean clothes, they made him a bowl of cereal and they drove him to see his commander. He sat in the office, his commander making the time to listen to nothing being said, only the sobs of a broken man. Finally, he was asked if he would like to see a chaplain or someone from Mental Health.

I said “no,” because I was scared, and because that’s the way I was raised in the Air Force. I was taught that seeking help was a sign of weakness, that it hurt careers, and it could negatively impact the mission. My commander didn’t force me. Instead he made a deal with me. He made me promise to answer the door no matter what time there was a knock, and to answer the phone at any hour. He pulled me from the flight schedule to ensure my personal safety and the safety of my fellow crewmates. He knew my passion for history and instructed me to begin a research project for the unit. All the while, he reminded me constantly of my options to speak with someone, and that it was a path back to wellness. After weeks of not smiling and busy work meant to keep my mind occupied, I finally told someone I was ready to talk.

There was no pause. I was immediately driven the 15 miles to our supporting hospital, and met with someone who wanted only to learn about what happened to make me go through the pain I felt. She gained my trust, assuring me that these steps to heal myself were courageous. It took time, but I worked through it. It took friends who legitimately cared about me and did whatever was needed. It took a command team to let me know it was okay to expose my wounds, since that was the only way to heal them. It took more time, but I was finally back in the air, doing what I loved, safely. It took a lot of people doing a lot of things at just the right time to make sure I was cared for. They never let me feel as though I was on my own. It also took a patient and loving God to wait for me to come back, and to show me there is a purpose for everything.

Since then, I’ve tried hard to crush the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues by being an example of a compassionate leader. But it wasn’t until recently that I decided the best example I could use was my own. I intend to continue spreading the message that it’s okay to ask for help. After mustering the courage to seek the assistance others wanted for me, I took to the path. It led me on a journey of self-discovery and helped to rebuild my confidence. In the aftermath, I continued to earn positions of responsibility and maintained my high-level security clearance. I was screened and designated to work for a special mission unit, promoted to chief master sergeant and eventually selected to be a command chief.

The previous paragraph is not boastful pride. It’s meant to encourage those who may be sitting in a similar dark corner, with what appears to be no place to go. I promise you there is a safe place, and I challenge you to ask for help. If I can crawl from my own hell with the help of others, I know you can, too. I also have a message for the “dinosaurs” that remain entrenched in the belief that asking for help is weak: You’re keeping your Airmen from reaching their full potential. That is exactly the opposite of what good leaders do. We should be inspiring our Airmen and conditioning them to seek whatever help they need in order to succeed personally and professionally. Healthy Airmen accomplish the mission efficiently, and with pride.

There are so many men and women with whom we serve who have made a leap of faith and found fulfillment on the other side. All it takes is the courage to ask for help.

Photo:Airmen at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., demonstrate the first step of Air Force suicide prevention, known as ACE. If you feel as though someone is considering hurting themselves, you should: Ask–engage them in conversation about their situation. Ask them directly if they are thinking of suicide. Care—calmly control the situation. Use active listening to show support to your wingman. Escort—don’t leave your wingman alone. Accompany them to their chain of command or the nearest medical facility. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alessandra N. Hurley)

Looking out for your wingman during the holidays

By Staff Sgt. Jarrod Chavana
Air Force Public Affairs Agency

111208-F-SM817-001Editor’s Note: This is the first entry in a blog series on dealing with holiday stress, strengthening resiliency and linking Airmen to support networks and resources. Airmen are encouraged to seek help and know that they have an Air Force family ready to listen and provide support in times of need.

The holidays are meant to be cheerful, but for some Airmen it can be the most stressful time of the year. As it is most often a time spent with friends and family, this season can be a magnifier for those individuals with existing emotional or psychological issues.

Although we signed the dotted line and chose this life, it’s never easy to be away from loved ones. In 2009, I spent Christmas deployed to Iraq, while my pregnant wife and family were on the other side of the world. Even though I was able to watch my daughters open presents over the Internet, it wasn’t quite the same. For many Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines, this has become a common place, but for others this can be the last straw.

There are countless reasons why someone may be feeling down. Some common causes could be: this is the first time he or she has been away from home on the holidays, financial problems or relationship issues.

Even though you may converse with your co-workers, do you really know what’s happening to them outside of work? We should be looking after our own throughout the year, especially during the holiday season. Each and every day we should look for warning signs, trying to find out the causes of why someone has become withdrawn or why someone is lashing out. 

Once you recognize that an Airman has a true problem, what next? You should try to talk to him or her, but more importantly – listen. If an Airman does not want to share his or her issues, provide reassurance and information on the various programs available to Airmen and dependents for private mental and spiritual care.

Each base provides mental health counselors. Chaplains and Military One Source are also good options. Base chaplains have a 100 percent confidentiality clause, while Military One Source provides up to 12 off-base counseling sessions per issue at no charge.

Other programs include the Suicide Prevention Line, which has a toll free number 1-800-273-Talk (8255). The Defense Centers of Excellence, available 24/7, is staffed by health resource consultants who provide information, resources and referrals for service members, veterans and their families. They can be reached at 1-866-966-1020 or resources@dcoeoutreach.com.

The holiday season is meant to be a joyous time in our lives, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed and powerless, please remember there is always a military support system.    

PHOTO:: Though Tech Sgt. Sonja Williams, 94th Airlift Wing Airman and Family Readiness specialist, simulates a depressed Airman, holiday depression is real. During this time of the year, people may experience heightened stress, fatigue, financial constraints and loneliness triggered by the holiday season. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Senior Airman Chelsea Smith)

Spiritually resilient

Resiliency is an Airman's internal strength, helping them to overcome adversity and stress.
by Staff Sgt. Travis Edwards
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

We all have our bumps in the road. Some are minor speed bumps and others are gaping potholes. Those are times where it seems there is nowhere to turn. But, it isn’t about what got us there; it’s about what brought us back that counts and makes us resilient Airmen.

Spiritual resiliency is about having a sense of purpose; those values that sustain the sense of wellbeing, not necessarily religion.

So, how can you stay spiritually resilient without religion?

For me, it wasn’t difficult. I found strength in my personal circle — my personal belief in my Air Force, my family and my friends.

It’s hard to talk or even think about not being with my wife, but there were times in the first few years of our marriage where we almost threw in the towel and opted for the big D. We were in a rut; a hard one too. It didn’t seem like we were compatible anymore and having two children did not make the situation easier. Our commitment was being tested.

Things like a “messy house” or dirty dishes turned to escalating verbal attacks, usually ending nowhere. Divorce seemed more and more like a viable option; if things didn’t change, it would quickly become the next step.

This is where my personal circle helped.

I was fortunate enough to have an amazing crew at my first assignment at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Almost everyone made themselves available to talk with me, but I will never forget the one who helped me the most. Mike was our deputy chief of public affairs. He was also a mentor, a friend and a great listener.

He allowed me to talk to him and put everything on the table. Mike was no stranger to being an Airman, he was closing in on 35 years in the service when we first met. After enduring a few days of my frustration, Mike said to me, “Travis, you need to stop talking to me about this, and both of you need to see a counselor.”

Mike was more known for his soft-spoken voice and daily rants on how the Hoard kept killing his gnome hunter in an online game. But this day I heard him very clearly; he was direct, yet compassionate.

My wife and I used a service provided by our Air Force family and made it to life skills, now mental health, and scheduled an appointment. After a year of bi-weekly sessions, we were doing better than ever and celebrated our ninth anniversary on Valentine’s Day.

Without my friends and mentors there to help push me in the right direction, I don’t think this would have been possible. I found my spiritual resiliency is catalyzed by the opportunities and people surrounding me.

My friends help me unwind and listen to me after a stressful work week, and my coworkers offer that helping hand, pen and shoulder when I need it. This is truly the best I’ve been in my life. I have Mike to thank for his selfless service in ensuring I am a well-rounded, resilient Airman even before the days of Air Force resiliency.

My personal circle is part of my spirituality; it’s those family and friends who are in my life and make a difference daily — those who I get to choose personally sans religion.

These are the things I believe in and have unwavering faith toward. Every Airman needs to find their own beliefs and stick to them, until the point in which they evolve and grow.