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January Shirt Blast

Portrait of U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Carl Clegg, first sergeant for the 169th Mission Support Group at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, South Carolina, October 6, 2019.

Portrait of U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Carl Clegg, first sergeant for the 169th Mission Support Group at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, South Carolina, October 6, 2019. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Edward Snyder, 169th Fighter Wing/Public Affairs)

MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE, S.C. --

Adapted from a talk given during the169th Fighter Wing Resilience Tactical Pause on December 7, 2019.

CMSAF Kaleth O. Wright said in a video message, “someone is struggling” and that we must “lead them to a better answer.” How will you know who is struggling? Most people who take their own life feel alienated from others. YOU can change that, but you must communicate to make that happen.

Psychologist, Albert Mehrabian conducted some studies on communication in the 60’s and we learned that speech has three main parts, words, tone and body language. It’s safe to say that texting and social media too often tell only part of the story. Are you really getting the full story when your Airman replies, “I’m fine?” What is fine? How do you get past fine?

Let me tell you a personal story:  It was 2003. I asked a girl to go with me to a Marc Cohn concert. I’ve been a huge fan for years, but never saw him live. It was a great night until I heard the opening notes to his hit, Walking in Memphis. Out of nowhere, I started crying—okay, sobbing really. It was as if I just got hit with the most devastating news. I was surprised, mortified, confused. I tried to pull it together, my nose started running and I was hoping my date had a tissue rolled up in her sleeve like my grandmother used to, but I was afraid to look at her.  

Fast forward a few years—I took my future wife to see Emerson Heart, lead singer of the band Tonic in an acoustic show. After playing his solo music, he started playing some of his Tonic hits including a song from Tonic’s first album that was obscure to most people, but not to me. Soldier’s Daughter. It was my favorite song. First, my eyes started to tear up and then just crying and crying.

In 2003, I was deployed to Iraq where, as a U.S. Army Soldier, I drove an unarmored Humvee as part of the Iraqi Survey Group, searching for WMDs. I realized I was mostly affected by music I took with me to Iraq. I did not engage the enemy and never saw dead people. I did my job and came home, yet I came home changed. I needed to find out what was up, so made an appointment with mental health at the VA.

Say your car starts making a funny noise, do you ignore it hoping it’ll go away? What may be a $5 fix, left unchecked, could be a $500 repair. Then because your car is broke, you can’t get to work and because of this, you lose your job. Then, you lose your girlfriend or boyfriend because they don’t want to be with someone without a car and a job and oh, the Air Force suspends your clearance because you can’t pay your bills. These problems are temporary, but can be overwhelming and seemingly leave no way out. Some Airmen are dealing with a noise in their brain and pride or fear are preventing them from asking for help.

Is going to the auto mechanic asking for help? Of course. And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with asking for help when your significant other leaves or when you need a new job? Nothing.

Resilience isn’t pillars or keys or a state of mind. It’s an activity. I have a dozen friends I can call at any moment and say, “my life’s gone to hell, help me.” It’s through making yourself vulnerable that you become strong. You have to open up to someone else to get help. I had to talk to someone and I must keep talking. And seeking help, in most cases, won’t harm your career. Despite talking to mental health at the VA, I’m in a leadership role in the wing.

Paralyzed physicist, Stephen Hawking, a man who could no longer talk without the aid of a computer, gave an interview to the BBC about the importance of talking. When reading, think of his words in terms of the suicidal who choose not to talk:

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened, which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk, and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind's greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn't have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.

Hawking said, “We learned to talk.” But then also said, “We learned to listen.” We need to be prepared to actively listen if someone in need opens up to us.

One point here:  If you’re at a party and your friend is drunk and about to leave with his car keys, it’s pretty much accepted to do what you have to do to prevent him from driving drunk. If you know someone is going through a hard time, get involved, get nosy. Ask them how they plan to deal with the situation they are in BEFORE it gets out of control. Get them to talk! And when they do…

Pay attention. Listen with intent. Your intention is to understand. Put down the phone and be present. Be sincere and make eye contact.

Clarify.  Ask questions for clarity, but wait your turn. No matter how tempting it is to share your own story, this isn’t about you. It’s about them. Have you ever finished a conversation with someone and thought, “that was a great conversation,” but then realized they just let you do all the talking? Don’t let that happen when someone is being vulnerable with you.

Summarize. Restate what they said because they may not realize the solutions coming out of their own mouth. Sometimes just being there for someone is enough.

Fighting the loss of 22 veterans a day might sound like the impossible, but “It doesn’t have to be like this. All we have to do is make sure we keep talking. When your goal is the impossible, you’ll be amazed at what is possible.