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Wingman culture key to suicide prevention

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- In my job, I often ask people if they have had thoughts of suicide. Many times the response is a question, "Does anyone actually say yes to that?" I get this question because historically, in military culture, it was unacceptable to show emotion. We were afraid to be seen as weak. We told ourselves to "suck it up" and focus on the mission. But over time, we are discovering military strength does not come from our ability to hide our emotions. Instead our resilience stems directly from our willingness to be open, our relationships to one another, and our sense of community. In short, Wingman culture is the key to strength and suicide prevention.

I recently had the great opportunity to learn from Dr. Brene Brown, a professor at the University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work and an expert in vulnerability. Brown stated, "Connection is why we're here, it's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives." Dr. Brown's research shows that connection does not come from "fitting in," but simply from our ability to be authentic in our day-to-day interactions. That begins with vulnerability. "It's about being honest with how we feel, about our fears, about what we need, and, asking for what we need," according to Brown.

Our wing commander, U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Gregory Guillot, recently echoed this thought at a recent Community Action Information Board meeting.

"Not only are we obligated to ask how our people are doing, but, when a wingman cares enough to ask, Airmen are obligated to give an honest response," Guillot said.

I agree. The most resilient among us have strength because they are willing to acknowledge their struggles rather than pretend they do not exist. That is why clients tell me about having thoughts of suicide. They often tell me through tears of fear, shame and sadness. But they tell me because they want to feel better. They tell me because, despite how weak they feel, they are strong enough to be honest.

"Vulnerability is not weakness," Brown said. "It's probably the most accurate measure of our individual courage." And I propose that it can be the most accurate measure of our community's strength as well.

Three primary factors have been shown to prevent military suicides: having relationships with a "Battle Buddy" or Wingman, good leadership and a sense of purpose. Fortunately, these concepts are inherent in Air Force culture, but we can become even more resilient by applying Brown's ideas in our day-to-day lives. By developing more authentic relationships, paying attention to cues from our team, and being responsive to those who might need our support, we do our part to build a stronger community and prevent suicide.

Please join us throughout the month of September in recognition of Suicide Prevention Month and to help us spread the word about the resources available to those in need. Upcoming events include Omaha's Out of the Darkness Walk Sept. 14 at 2 p.m. and Offutt Pay-it-forward Week Sept. 21 to 27.