Taking back your stripes: Wing Adversity Support Group helps Airmen recover from career setbacks

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The Wing Adversity Support Group is a new program to help junior enlisted Airmen suffering from adversity to get their careers and lives back on track. The support group presents life-stories and advice from NCOs who have recovered their careers from a variety of situations. (U.S. Air Force graphic illustration by Senior Airman Elizabeth Baker)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- “When I got my stripe taken away I went from testing for technical sergeant to being a brand new senior airman again,” said Tech. Sgt. Robert Ryan 693rd Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance Group Geospatial Intelligence Operations superintendent. “That was a lot of time and money I just wasted. That was the darkest, lowest point of my life. I’ve come out of that and I’ve tried to kick butt since then. My message is that there’s still hope, regardless of how dark it may look at the moment.”

Across the Air Force, Airmen struggle with repercussions from alcohol-related incidents, post-traumatic stress syndrome, divorce and other adverse circumstances. The Wing Adversity Support Group is a new program to help junior enlisted Airmen suffering from adversity to get their careers and lives back on track. The support group presents life-stories and advice from NCOs who have recovered their careers from a variety of situations.

The support group presented three speakers at the first meeting in October, and many more volunteered to share their stories at future meetings.

“The intent is to give guidance and share stories,” Ryan said. “If any of the Airmen want specific help with their situation, we want to get them connected with a mentor.”

Tech. Sgt. Justin Baker, 693rd ISRG mental health technician and alcohol and drug abuse counselor, began the adversity support group with Ryan who is now slated to sew on another stripe.

“Our motivation is to get Airmen to see that even if they have a setback in their career they can still recover,” Baker said. “Sometimes just hearing other people’s stories is enough to motivate a person to recover.

Ryan and Baker also hope the support group may be a preventative tool.

“For example, after hearing these stories they may choose not to go out to the club and then drink and drive,” Ryan said.

Ryan made the mistake of drinking and driving earlier in his career, and came very close to leaving the Air Force. He draws from his own experiences to connect with the Airmen and understand their needs.
Although an Airman who has just lost a stripe may have hit their lowest point in life and feel others giving up on them, Ryan said they can’t give up on themselves.

“If people think you’re going to get kicked out, prove them wrong,” Ryan said. “Look for opportunities to lead and figure out how you can stand out.”

Another example of the stories shared at the advisory support group comes from Staff Sgt. Cherri McIlwain, 1st Combat Communications Squadron Tactical Network Operations Supervisor.

“I was in an emotionally, mentally and physically abusive marriage for two-and-a-half years,” McIlwain said. “My life was threatened on multiple occasions until I finally removed myself from the relationship.”
McIlwain said she developed low self-esteem, which lead to less exercise and more drinking.

“I ended up gaining about 50lbs from depression and stress and failed two PT tests that almost cost me my career. It got to a point where I had to ask for some serious help and I was grateful for a first sergeant who took the time to know me and understand me. Also I had two very good friends, and no matter how much I pulled away from them, they rescued me.”

Ryan and Baker think recovering careers isn’t only good for the Airmen, it’s also good for the Air Force.

“The Air Force can retain a lot of good people if we focus on who they are and not the mistakes they made,” Ryan said. “If you invest in some of these guys who are willing to turn their career around, they’ll probably be some of the best leaders in the Air Force. They’ve been through so much and they take their roles very seriously.”

Ryan and Baker encourage leadership to utilize the adversity support group.

“We need NCOs, supervisors, flight chiefs and section chiefs to go to these meetings and encourage their Airmen to go whether they’re in trouble or not,” Baker said.

Baker emphasized that the amazing stories the mentors share at the meetings are valuable for everyone. Leaders can use the knowledge to help their Airmen, and Airmen can use it when they become supervisors.

Baker and Ryan both said they felt like the first meeting was successful.

“You can tell when someone is really paying attention to a story,” Ryan said. “It was a good feeling to see Airmen really connecting to the NCOs.”

Ryan said they want to continue to hold meetings once or twice a quarter so many more mentors can share their stories.

The next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 12 at the Hercules Theater from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. For more information contact Baker at Justin.baker.2@us.af.mil or DSN 478 7523, or Ryan at Robert.Ryan.10@us.af.mil or DSN 478-7505.