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In our Air Force, compassionate leadership is mandatory

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Jamie L. Vanoss
  • 455th Expeditionary Aerial Port Squadron
Turn on the news, or log into Facebook, and there's a myriad of stories dedicated to the late Robin Williams. While the news is shocking, what should shock us more is that this act is not relegated only to celebrities. Our Air Force is plagued by suicide. It is real. It is happening, and it must stop. We, as fellow Airmen, are critical in stopping it! I know what you are thinking, "How could I possibly be in a position to stop a suicide?" To be honest, I thought the exact same thing until February of 2013.

I led an Airman who was deployed to Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan. Following a suicide car bomb at the front gate, 14 insurgents rushed through a gap created by a suicide bomber and tried to overtake the base. He, his six-member team and others on the base were able to defeat the enemy forces. They came home to a hero's welcome... three Purple Hearts, Combat Action Badges, and medals for valor. He left Afghanistan physically intact, but while the fight against the enemy was done, his own fight was just beginning.

One evening we received a call from his girlfriend saying that he had been on a three-day drinking binge, and she was greatly concerned for his safety. Upon arriving, we could tell he was not lucid. He was clearly drunk--you could smell it on him--but his state was more than just drunkenness. Something was clearly wrong. After about three-hours, he was coherent enough to talk with us. He kept licking his lips, had no balance and was acting like no drunk I'd ever seen before. We talked with him, and about two hours later we convinced him to let us take him to the hospital. We carried him in, and they immediately admitted him. By this time, it was midnight and we went back to work to inform our leadership of the situation. We then returned to the hospital to check on him only to find him intubated and hooked up to a vast array of machines. We asked what happened and they told us his girlfriend admitted he took two boxes of sleeping pills but did not want to say anything because it might hurt his career.

Now think about all this for a moment. I could have easily said, "We have an IG inspection coming up, so I do not have time to deal with a drunk." His girlfriend could have not called us or never told the medical team about the pills he took. He could have been alone. There are a million what ifs, but I firmly believe this happened for a reason... and on this day, a Master Sergeant and I saved this young man's life. So, why did I intervene and risk his career to get him to the hospital? The simple answer is: it is my job.

I knew what he and his team went through, but I did not know what he was going through mentally. Our attempts to reach out to him were met with the common answer: "I am fine." However, we cared enough about him as an individual to risk hurting his career so he could live to see his daughter grow up... and so that one day he could proudly walk her down the aisle at her wedding. I cared enough about him to make sure there was nothing more important than caring for him at that moment. Today, I can report he is a happy, vibrant young man who still wrestles with his demons. However, he has the will to live and the will to fight those demons... one day at a time and with me always in his corner to assist. This is what I mean when I say compassionate leadership.

I share this story not to brag about saving his life. I share this to demonstrate that as a leader or friend, we have an obligation to listen, to care, and to act!

Remember that we are in the business of "Airmen." Whether we lead them, befriend them, or fight alongside them, we all have a responsibility to make our fellow Airmen our first priority. Ask them if they are okay. Listen to them when they need to vent. Hug them when they need to know they are not alone. Convince them to get help if needed. Together, we can make sure that no one ever feels they are alone to fight their demons, whatever they might be.

Lastly, we should never be too proud to share the problems we internalize. The likelihood that someone has gone through what we are going through is great, and if not, our leadership and military professionals stand ready to assist. None of us are ever alone! Ask for help when you need it, and I promise you, your fellow Airmen will travel to the ends of the earth to help. As always, thank you for your leadership, your professionalism, and your willingness to dedicate yourself to something greater than yourself.