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A little empathy goes a long way

  • Published
  • By Capt. Cristal Clark
  • 386th Air Expeditionary Wing senior intelligence officer
Intelligence personnel require skills that read a bit like a Southern cooking recipe. You need a dab of political science knowledge, a dash of situational awareness, a pinch of public speaking ability, a splash of intuition and a sprinkle of luck.

This skill set is particularly useful when running the board at trivial pursuit and delivering impromptu wedding speeches when the maid of honor chickens out. But, if you mix well, bake at 350 degrees for seven months, and let cool for a few years, you get someone with pretty good pattern recognition.

After six months in theater, I've noticed two patterns amongst the Airmen here at the Rock: stress and narcissism. For those of you scratching your heads at that last part, narcissism is "inordinate fascination with oneself" according to These two traits are the subtle hallmarks of deployed life, despite briefings and reminders to manage stress and look out for fellow Airman.

Deployed life is hard even in a relatively predictable environment like we have here. Being away from home is still being away from home whether you are getting shot at or not. Kids grow up. Relationships suffer. Birthdays and holidays come and go. You're tired because you only get one day off a week and your klutzy roommate knocks stuff over while getting dressed for work at 0400. Co-workers grate on your nerves. The DAWGnet crashes in the middle of your first webcam conversation in weeks. The washing machine dies with your clothes trapped inside. These and other stressors can pile up quickly and become overwhelming. I know ... most of these and many others happened to me; a thousand apologies to my roommate for having to live with a total klutz.

Back at home station, blowing off steam is pretty easy. You can go home or hang out with friends to get away from annoying people. You can work out problems at home without physical communication barriers. Sorry, can't help you with the mental ones. You can sleep in on the weekends. You can call the Maytag guy to come fix your washer or just buy new clothes. But when you're deployed, these luxuries aren't available. The Rock is only so big. You have to see those same annoying people every day at work, in the dorm, at the DFAC, at the gym. You feel powerless to fix what's going on at home. And civil engineers will get to that broken washer when they get to that broken washer, the one with all of your uniforms inside, when you have to be at work in two hours.

So, what do we do when we get stressed out? We become consumed by our own problems, internalize our focus, tuck our heads to the storm, and go about life trying to minimize contact as best we can. While minding your own business seems like a reasonable coping mechanism, it is actually quite counterproductive.

I had a terrible day yesterday; in fact, I had a terrible week. At the end of my terrible week, I was in a meeting and witnessed two similarly stressed-out friends verbally snipe at each other until one left the meeting in tears. At that point, my terrible day and my terrible week didn't really matter so much. I realized that my friend who stayed was just as stressed and sleep-deprived as I was and really needed someone to help her with the meeting. My friend who left was hurt because the incident tapped into something in her past and she wasn't able to just shake it off.

Helping my friends through their struggles put my own in perspective and made me feel good. As I thought about this experience, I realized becoming a little narcissistic isn't the best way to cope with the stress of deployment. I should have been more attentive to what my friends were going through before they snapped at each other. When my stress gets the better of me, I want someone to be there for me. But, more importantly, I want someone to be there before stress turns me into "The Wicked Witch of the South."

I once spent an evening whining on the phone to my mom about how no one in here cares that I draw breath. During my personal pity party, she kindly reminded me that to have a friend, I need to be a friend. Sure, combat stress and the chaplain are great resources, but their manning probably doesn't support weekly visits by the entire base populace and they aren't there to be our rent-a-friends.

Supervisors struggle with stress too. I've seen plenty of O-6s walking around with bags under their eyes and that haggard, overwhelmed look on their faces. Good leadership isn't a competition to see who has the stiffest upper lip or who can embrace the most suck. The best way to combat the stress of deployed life isn't to bury our heads in the sand of our own problems while going about the day wearing our masks of invincible normalcy. That's what makes people "go postal". The best way to cope with stress is to do what friends do: give and receive empathy.

Empathy is the hallmark of a good friend. Empathy is what inspires trust in a leader; it is what makes subordinates feel like people rather than tools to accomplish the mission. Empathy won't get you home for your kid's birthday. Empathy won't make your roommate any less of a klutz. Empathy won't open the washing machine. But, when you are powerless to change your circumstances, empathy says, "I hear you." Empathy says, "I understand your situation." Empathy says, "I care that you are suffering." Empathy says, "I can't make it better, but I can make it bearable." Empathy is something we all have. It costs us nothing to share, yet returns itself with interest. And, it can be given to anyone, regardless of rank.

So, bust out your situational awareness and listen to the little snide, cynical comments people make throughout the week. Those are the signs of pent-up stress. Instead of ignoring them and going about your day like a frazzled ostrich, show a little empathy. You'll be better for it and so will the other person.