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Bagram ‘Helping Agencies’ care for service members during deployment

  • Published
  • By Tech Sgt. Nicholas Rau
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

Throughout a deployment, service members face many challenges that they normally do not back home, meaning they may have a crucial need for specialized support while in Afghanistan. That is where the helping agencies come in and provide whatever member needs to get back into the fight.

These agencies consist of four major players: Equal Opportunity, the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, Combat Stress, and the Chaplain Corps.

“We are all trying to create a positive environment for service members and DoD civilians to live and work in,” said Tech. Sgt. Michelle Luckett, 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Equal Opportunity Office.  “Service members shouldn’t have to worry about a negative climate. They should be able to focus on the mission.”

While each of these agencies concentrate on taking care of service members, each are specialized in a specific aspect of the member’s needs.  Equal Opportunity aims to eliminate discrimination, SARC is dedicated to sexual harassment and assault prevention and response, Combat Stress upholds mental resiliency, and the Chaplain Corps is devoted to spiritual support. While each have their masteries, they work hand in hand with each other to give service members the best care available.

Equal Opportunity

Discrimination can come in many forms, and it is Luckett’s job to ensure everyone clearly understands that any of those forms are unacceptable, while also being there to help those that are affected.

“I like to go out and interact with the units,” she explained. “I get to look Airmen in the eye, ask how they are doing and explain how I can help them.  They don’t always open up right away.  It can take a few days after the visit for someone to contact me looking for advice.

“I talk it out with them in an informal consultation, because my goal is to resolve the issue at the lowest level,” she said. “I want our Airmen to be free of discrimination and harassment so that they can rise to their highest level of potential.”

The services the EO office provides are: an avenue to file an unlawful discrimination or sexual harassment complaint, alternate dispute resolution, team-building events, and work place conflict resolution.

Luckett offers all of these services, which usually produce immediate results, to Airmen throughout Afghanistan with the assistance of EO liaisons at Kandahar Airfield and Kabul. She and the SARC are the only assigned Air Force assets in country.

Sexual Assault Response Coordinator

The Air Force has placed great importance on eliminating sexual assault, and that is no different when deployed. Assigned to help Airmen who are affected is Capt. Heather Novus, 455th AEW SARC, the primary responder for the Air Force in Afghanistan.

“I am here to enhance awareness and promote a culture of respect, while also being trained to help with trauma response during the most difficult situations,” said Novus. “I want to make sure that Airmen can trust the system and be able to believe in the program. I make sure that they feel like they can come forward and get the care that they need. It’s all about the Airmen.”

 “I feel that the low rate of sexual assaults is because of prevention efforts,” explained Novus. “With prevention efforts, we can get ahead of problems and create a culture of respect. Sexual assault has not yet been eliminated from our Air Force, but we get closer with every person that is trained to recognize predatory behavior and to intervene.”

The services the SARC provides are: restricted and unrestricted reports for military and DoD civilians, annual awareness training, and victim advocate representation and training.

While Novus is the sole Air Force SARC for Afghanistan, she also helps anyone who comes to her with previous stateside incidents and provides whatever assistance the member needs.

Combat Stress

The Combat Stress Center at Bagram combines Army and Air Force personnel to strengthen the mental resiliency of service members within a deployed environment.

“Our main mission is to provide assistance to service members through prevention, enhance coping and support after critical mission incidents,” said Army Capt. Allison Walsh-Day, 254th Medical Detachment Forward Detachment commander. “We do this through battlefield circulation, or going out to the units, to ensure our members know our services are available and that we have not forgotten about them.”

To accomplish this mission, Walsh-Day’s team integrates into the community and command teams in order to align themselves with the support resources within the unit. The team consists of a psychiatric nurse practitioner, psychologists, and a social worker spread out over 3 primary locations, with scheduled battlefield circulation to other outlying areas.

“We are a force multiplier, and it’s our job is to keep people in the fight,” said Army Capt. Kristi Mueller, 254th MED DET psychologist. “Part of what we do is prevention, which reduces the need for people to be seen in the clinic. We also go out to the Members and have them get to know us. That way, when there is a crisis, we can have a faster response with the least amount of damage.”

The services that Combat Stress provides are: individual counseling, stress management, crisis response, command and medical provider consultation, suicide and homicide prevention, interpersonal relationship management and sleep assistance.

The team at the Craig Joint Theater Hospital links to other bases in Afghanistan to be able to provide an adaptive and dynamic response network, bridging the gap between the organic behavior health assets and the member.

Chaplain Corps

The Chaplain Corps is the only sanctioned organization in the military that directly addresses the spiritual needs of service members.  Given domain to ensure that the First Amendment Right of Free Exercise of Religion is accommodated, the Chaplain Corps provides guidance and counsel to leaders in order to facilitate each service member’s religious preferences.

“Though you may leave the country for deployment, you do not leave your rights behind,” said Master Sgt. Joseph Laxson, 455th AEW Chaplain Corps Superintendent. “Just like the flag you wear on your shoulder, you take your rights as an American with you. Service members have the right to practice their faith downrange and we make sure that right is accommodated.”

To meet the needs of the service members, the Chaplain Corps assigns Religious Support Teams to each Air Force unit. Each RST is made up of a chaplain and a chaplain assistant. The chaplain is a noncombatant endorsed in their particular faith background, but chaplain to all. The chaplain assistant is a combatant, protecting the RST and trained to identify and triage spiritual support to those in need.

With such a wide spectrum of beliefs, the Chaplain Corps uses all resources and relationships to assist with upholding a member’s spiritual resiliency. They receive faith demographics to know what services to set up and identify distinctive religious group leaders (DRGLs) for faith groups without an assigned chaplain available. When all other options are exhausted, the Bagram chapel reaches out to coalition assets.

“Recently we had a loss on Bagram and the deceased members were Roman Catholic,” explained Chap. (Lt. Col.) David Kelley, 455th AEW Wing Chaplain. “However, we do not have a priest on staff. So we reached out to our NATO partners and secured a Polish, Roman Catholic chaplain. With the support of a translator, we were able to provide our heroes with their religious rites.”

The Chaplain Corps, like many of the helping agencies, is able to be reached any hour of any day. This can be for anything, whether it be a crisis of faith or a need to talk about something going on in the member’s life, a chaplain will make him or her selves available.

“We have 24-hour availability,” said Kelley. “You could knock on my door at 3 a.m. and all I would say is ‘give me 5 minutes to put my uniform on.’ I believe that this is our most important mission, for when the spirit falters, the mission falters. We make sure the warrior’s soul is ready to win the fight. That is why we exist. ”

The services the Chaplain Corps provides are: counseling sessions, Airman Ministry Center, religious accommodations, advice to commanders on religious issues, unit engagement, worship services in the chapel and in the unit, and religious rites. The Chaplain Corps also has the unique ability to offer 100-percent confidentiality. They are the only organization in the military to have this privilege.

Though all the helping agencies have their specific roles and “lanes” of operations, their interoperability has resulted in success. Many cases involve “warm handoffs,” where one agency will take the member directly to an agency that can help them better or with additional issues. These connections lead to the bigger picture of why the helping agencies exist in the first place.

“We are all working together to provide care and support to the greatest of Americans, our Airmen!” said Kelley. “They are our priority.”