A guy I know, Jim, was stationed at Osan, Korea, a few years back and told this story. He was living in the dorms and was leaving to go get something to eat. He had noticed that a guy down the hall had been looking down, so he decided to invite him to go with him. The guy declined the offer so Jim went on alone but brought him back something to eat. The guy invited him in, and they ate their dinner together in the dorm room. Jim never really became friends with the guy but would talk occasionally and say hi.
Years had gone by and Jim was at a different base when the same guy approached him with a woman.
He introduced her as his wife and explained that he wanted her to meet him because of the impact he had had on his life.
This baffled Jim because their interactions had been limited. When asked how he’d impacted him, the guy explained that the night Jim had gotten food and brought it back for him, he’d been thinking of killing himself that evening. He said that the simple gesture of bringing back food showed that people cared and gave him a little hope that things might improve.
Jim hadn’t realized that his notice of a change in mood and going a little bit extra for a fellow Airman was enough to have a life-changing impact for someone.
Recently, we all went to Wingman Day and chose a Wingman for ourselves. I believe that sometimes we need to formalize a process until it becomes ingrained. People are always asking what contributes organizationally to trends in suicide and more recently, to the increase this last year in the number of suicides in the Air Force. While it’s almost impossible to pinpoint what made each of those 58 Airmen choose to take their own lives instead of seeking help, I think changing our culture can help reduce the number.
Our jobs are demanding. We protect our country as well as nations across the globe. We do it when segments of society are telling us that we shouldn’t be there. We do it as our numbers are gradually being reduced due to force shaping. We do it even though it means spending more and more of our time away from our families because of increased deployments. With our pace, it’s too easy to go on auto-pilot and forget about taking care of ourselves and each other. Combat Wingman is about increasing the awareness that we should be looking out for each other and know there’s someone who’s going to check in when things get hectic.
It doesn’t need to be a supervisor or commander. It’s someone you know who’ll be there for you. Jim did not wait to be approached.
His dorm neighbor probably never would have reached out. He showed concern and kindness toward his fellow Airman, not because he had to, but because it was the right thing to do. If we all would have that mindset, our culture would begin to change and the results would be evident.