May your skies be blue, and your wingman be true!

We all know or in one way remember the buddy system. When you were a kid at camp you had a buddy that you had to go everywhere with, or as an adult if you’re walking home at night maybe it’s good idea to take a buddy. Generally we know this concept as a safety in numbers kind of philosophy. The Air Force however has a different approach on the buddy system, it’s called the “wingman concept”, and it’s not just about walking home alone at night from a bar, it’s a philosophy that they want to permeate into every aspect of everyone’s life. It goes beyond being safe in a dark alley, it goes into suicide prevention, co-dependance on your other airman, and in my opinion and many others a very distorted maladaptive way of building what the Air Force considers personal resilience. 

As I sat through the mandatory day long briefing entitled “wingman safety day” a psychologist was speaking and at one point said “resilience is built out of necessity”, and that one statement from this highly trained mental health professional summarized all that the Air Force has backwards about building resilience. The Air Force is a reactive culture, although they would like to think they are proactive in certain measures they never really are, and any preventative measures are usually the reaction from something that went wrong to begin with. The wingman concept is just an example of this and it’s being forced more and more today because of rising suicide rates within the ranks. It’s the idea that if you’re thinking about hurting yourself you should have a strong social network and wingmen (gender neutral term) to lean on. It’s everyone’s responsibility to be a wingman, to look after the man standing next to you. Which is of course a very well intended ideal to have someone like that to call upon in the stressful world of being in the military, but also in life in general. The issue is that we in the military are dependent on this, as a culture we’ve gotten away from the simple concept of personal responsibility, of basically figuring out how to toughen yourself up, the outrageousness of this concept is only enhanced when we remind ourselves that we are in the armed forces. Aren’t we as individuals supposed to be inherently more resilient knowing what we are signing up for?

The wingman is also liable if something happens to someone else in their unit. Who is to blame in a suicide? In the civilian world it’s generally not a long thought upon question. In the military the finger is first pointed at the wingman. And wingman is really a nebulous term. It’s not like you show up to a new unit and you get assigned a new shiny wingman equipped with a kleenex dispenser on their shoulder to cry on. Everyone is supposed to be a wingman, and everyone is each other’s wingman. So the burden of blame becomes systemic. But, if you know anything about a large bureaucratic system, especially one that values an overabundance of negative reinforcement combined with people cutting throats to climb a ladder of rank and prestige, no systemic fault can possibly be the fault of the system, and surely there is someone, or some small faction to assign blame to. Who do you think is the least common denominator to put blame on? It’s always the wingman. Where was the wingman? Where was the 19 year old airman that was supposed to identify, isolate and appropriately manage or refer his 19 year old buddy who was dealing with something tough in his life? I’ll tell you where he was. On Mars! Because if this is really the Air Force’s solution to suicide prevention than that’s where this concept belongs.

Back to wingman safety day. Dim the lights. Whirl up the projector, it’s canned movie time. An old WWII vet comes on screen and begins praising today’s military for it’s abundance of mental health support, philosophy on leaning on your fellow man, etc. He then makes the statement “and you simply can’t do this alone” as the screen transitions to a rock band in some dusty warehouse. The rock ballad begins by telling the tale of a young man on his way to Afghanistan and the lonely family he’s leaving behind. Months of trial and heart ache ensue, “but, she stayed by his side” riffs out the electronic guitar. The music video comes to a close with the solider finally returning home to a small parade of people in his driveway. A loving wife and family run into his arms with welcome home banners drifting in the background. The hallmark propaganda of having a loving support network is completed by scenes of his family going to parks, playing on swings, etc.

As cheesy as this video was it made a strong impression. The impression was that you should be depressed as shit if you don’t have a perfect nuclear family waiting for you while you’re deployed. In the last three years I’ve deployed four times, and each time I come home I take a cab from the airport to an empty house, I’m still waiting for my driveway parade with banners and small ponies, but it just never seems to happen. But, I don’t need this, and that’s the point. What about all the single airman forced to watch this nonsense? What is the message we are sending here? You’re doing it all wrong! Look at what this beautiful family has! Why are you single? Why are you single and happy? Blasphemy! If you’re not miserable now you soon will be, so you should probably think about just going to see mental health, because let’s be honest, you’re a mess and you just don’t know it.

 

But, let’s say you do check the family box and have to deploy. Well, than indeed this video is perfect for you. This is a fine example of how your wife and kids will be your best support system. Your marriage will be strong, and your family will always be by your side. There will never be any doubts in your marriage, no no no, don’t worry about that. She will never think about other men. Your 15 minutes a day on the morale phones in Afghanistan will be romantic bliss, and you will be able to enjoy those special moments with the airman sitting two feet away from you skyping his girlfriend. On a special note to those deploying for more than a year, don’t worry about such irrational fears like your kids growing up without you, forgetting you, etc. The video doesn’t teach any of that, so put it out of your head right now. So really no matter how long you’re deployed for, there will be a parade or pure happiness waiting for you when you come home, nothing will change in the time your gone, in fact your marriage will only improve! Just sit still, watch the video, and please don’t kill yourself.

Rants about outrageous misguided military propaganda aside. Is there an actual problem with resiliency in our military? The answer is yes. The long war is wearing us out. We are sending people overseas and asking them for tremendous personal sacrifices for reasons that really don’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s not hard to look at the different conflicts we are in and ask the simple question, why? But, most of these deployments make even less sense when you are actually deployed. The main stressors a military member deals with over seas is not the glamours idea of living in a fox hole and dodging bullets. Most likely it’s really dumb shit like being yelled at for a printer that doesn’t work, or not being to get mail, or shitty food at the chow hall. So we try not to think about it, we live these crazy segmented lives of being home for four months and gone for four months and try not to look at the big picture, because it will only make a sane person crazy if we do. This compounded with the “the beatings will continue until morale improves” philosophy back at home creates a cycle filled with a lot of pissed off people. The war we really fight is a war against each other, a human relations war filled with hostile commanders with unchecked egos yelling at subordinates for asinine things out of their control is the real war that is breaking our troops.

So what can we do? Can we change it? Nope! Sorry to tell you this, but if you’re active duty and reading this It’s not going to change anytime soon. So we know we are going to have to embrace the suck that is the dysfunctional system we work in. We know that conflict, tensions, and hardships will arise, egos of those we work for will go unchecked and malicious behavior will possibly even be rewarded, and we have to know how to deal with this, how to live with this and still maintain some level of happiness.  But, this is not the same as “resiliency comes from necessity”. We must be more proactive with our warped idea of resiliency. The old adage of learning how to sail during calm seas and not choppy ones applies. So should all airman be forced to go to mental health? Have mandatory cry on a shoulder sessions once a week? No! Because the onus should be on the person to be a stronger more ready and resilient person and not the system! There is a mountain of books and resources out there in this growing field of, well call it what you will, positive psychology, human potential movement, self help, whatever. The point is that the military can’t help you as we’ve seen. So do yourself a favor and work on yourself so your wingman doesn’t have to.