Know your fellow Airman; It could save a life

  • Published
  • By Col. Daniel E. Reiser
  • 86th Medical Operations Squadron commander
As a commander, one of my greatest concerns, and something that can keep me up at night, is the safety and well-being of our Airmen. It is tragic enough to lose an Airman to an accident or to combat, but when one takes his or her own life, the survivors are left wondering, "Could we have prevented this?"

The Air Force experienced 34 active-duty suicides in 2010, and in 2011 we have already reached 30. This translates into someone's father, mother, brother, sister, husband, wife, son or daughter no longer being with us. What can we do to lower these tragic statistics?

At my recent commander's call, I went over two very important points related to suicide, which showcased how our Airmen can use basic wingman principles to support each other and provide help when it is needed most. These two principles are: Know your Airmen and know when to step in.

Know Your Airmen
I expect my front-line supervisors to know who they supervise on a professional and personal level. One of the first places we build this acquaintance is during our initial orientation and feedback. Once a new Airman arrives in the squadron, I make it a point to personally interview him or her on Day One and to find out if they have any problems in their personal life that could impact their adjustment to Ramstein. How can I effectively lead if I don't know the people I'm leading and what concerns my Airmen are bringing with them?

As my superintendent and I walk around the squadron during the week, we ask folks how they are doing. Some of the things I really watch for during these walk-arounds are body language and expressions in their faces when asked how everything is going. If the facial and body language don't match the comment, we will step in to see what is going on so that we can better know our Airmen. As leaders, we need to let our Airmen know that we are genuinely interested in hearing about their problems, being supportive of them and assisting them in identifying what help might be most useful for them. They need to know that seeking help in times of distress displays strength and good judgment.

I stressed that I also expect my Airmen to know their fellow Airmen and civilians, so when something has changed in their behavior they are the first to recognize it. The duty section is often the key community for many of our Air Force members. In a squadron of 150 members, it became apparent to me early on that I could never know everyone to that degree, but I knew this could occur at the element and flight level. The people an individual sees every day (co-workers, family and friends) are in the best position to recognize changes stemming from distress and to provide support. Any substantial and observable change in behavior warrants further discussion with the individual.

Know When To Step In
As I mentioned earlier, we begin to understand what is going on with our Airmen on Day One in the squadron. A good supervisor will know what challenges their Airmen are facing both at home and at work.

Through suicide prevention training, our Airmen are armed with the necessary skills to recognize comments or actions that should raise red flags. Just recently on Facebook, we as a community saw firsthand how our fellow Airmen and civilians rose to the challenge and collectively stepped in to offer support to find an Airman who had indirectly put out a call for help. We all learn during our annual suicide prevention training that it is appropriate and expected for us to ask whether or not someone is contemplating taking their own life. It is better to step in and act perhaps unnecessarily, than to have failed to act at all when it was critically needed.

Eliminating all Air Force suicides may be a difficult goal, but we can reduce the number of these tragic losses.

Educating our Airmen and civilians on risk factors, acute risk warning signs, protective factors and ways to respond can help us maintain a healthy and fit force. By getting to know our members and being willing to step in, we decrease the likelihood of suicide within the unit. The better we know our Airmen, the more confident and comfortable we will be in making the
decision to step in.