It’s about being involved…not being intrusive

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John R. Thomas
  • 10th Space Warning Squadron
Today more than ever, we hear about the increasing suicide rate in the military. Our senior leaders are trying to figure out how to address this epidemic across the Air Force. We've had more than a couple Wingman Days to discuss how to address this epidemic in our own units.

I say, at the most basic level, it comes down to leadership, and leadership is about relationships. In this environment of doing more with less, I believe we've lost some of the luxury of getting out from behind our e-mails and taskers and doing the important part spending time with our Airmen. But this is absolutely imperative because the truly lasting legacy every leader will leave is with the Airmen they lead, not with the unit or mission they belong to at the time.

For the most part we have come to grips with drinking and driving. We won't hesitate to take car keys away from a fellow Airman, or offer to drive them home. We feel almost comfortable telling a wingman they've had too much to drink, because we know the results could negatively affect their Air Force career. But the sad fact is we have Airman dying, and not for the reason they joined, but because we feel it's "intrusive" to delve into their personal lives. We lead on the field, but not always off the field when everyone heads home.

At a recent commander's conference, I sat through a suicide briefing of a first lieutenant space operator. I listened to his wing commander painstakingly go through a detailed timeline of the events in this young officer's life that led to his suicide. For an hour and a half I sat there and could think about nothing else but, "Where was the supervisor? Where was the flight commander?" I truly believe that had his direct leadership been involved in what was going on in that officer's world, he or she may have seen the warning signs we are all trained to detect.

The supervision may have gotten involved to get the person help, and the result may have been different. By no means do I place blame solely on the supervisor; we are all accountable for our own actions. What was evident is the supervisor did not get involved with "off the field" issues because he or she did not want to be intrusive.

Being involved starts with feedback, both formal and informal, and includes opening up the lines of communication for that feedback to flow both ways.

It means getting to know the Airman, their family, the reason they joined the Air Force, their goals and dreams, and so forth. It means making yourself available both on the field and off, and not letting yourself be distracted by emails and taskers. It means having a relationship that allows for early detection of issues affecting that Airman's life. And then it means acting when something isn't as it should be.

My message to you as a supervisor and a leader is it's about being "involved" and not about being "intrusive." When you develop a relationship with your Airmen, your involvement will not be intrusive.

I challenge every supervisor and leader out there to be deliberate about the time you spend with your Airmen, build a relationship, be involved, and leave a truly lasting legacy.