Resilience: The glue of the forces

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Charles Dickens and Tech. Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson
  • Airman Magazine

  If you want to understand how the Air Force instills resilience into every uniformed member, think back to your time at basic military training, basic cadet training, field training or officer training school. Through grit and determination, you overcame many challenges to become an Airman, and developed coping skills and techniques to help you stay focused.

  This is a large part of the ethos built into the Air Force’s Spectrum of Resilience program, but it will take every Airman continuously improving in each of these tenets to infuse wellness into the culture.

  “While the Spectrum of Resilience is a great program, what we know is programs do not save lives; people save lives,” Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass emphasized.

  “It’s really important that we create a culture and an atmosphere of connectedness; of purpose. It’s that culture that, perhaps, is something somebody will need when they’re having some of their worst days. They’ll know they can call on their brother or sister that’s right next to them.”

  Throughout the years, the Air Force has implemented and replaced numerous programs, directed diverse campaigns and altered doctrine to emphasize the importance of instilling and maintaining resilience within Airmen. However, even with those developments, the Defense Department recorded 384 active component suicide deaths in 2020. This represented an alarming 33.5% increase since 2016 and prompted the United States Government Accountability Office to conduct a study.


  “One suicide is one too many. Preventing suicide matters every single day. This isn’t about a month, an observance or a public announcement. This is about ensuring that there are NO suicides in our Air Force, because every time one of our brothers or sisters completes suicide, it hurts us all.”

-Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass

  The analysis of the study examined the extent to which DoD and military services had collected required suicide incident data, and what is known about the incidence of suicide and related risk factors among service members between 2016 and 2020.
  From this study, 14 recommendations were given to the DoD, and in 2021, the number of active component suicides declined to 328. In 2021, the Air Force active component reported 51 suicides, which was a drop from the 82 suicides reported in 2020. 

  “When you think about it, some of the core reasons our Airmen and Guardians are dying by suicide, are relationship issues,” explained Dr. Mary Bartlett, Air War College associate professor at the Leadership and Innovation Institute at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. “Resilience, largely, is about dealing with emotions, which are a huge part of any relationship you have.”

  Bartlett played a key role in developing a new course being offered at the Air Command and Staff College and the Air War College, that teaches service members how to create healthy, connected communities and build skill sets to cope with adversity.

  “It was identified that we cannot rely exclusively on our mental health system to build robust Airmen and Guardians, and, in fact, we shouldn't wait until it gets to that point. The essence of this is we need to start to help people understand their emotions and how that dictates their actions and outcomes, particularly when they're in adverse situations, long before they get to the other side of the spectrum, which is needing professional mental health support.”

-Dr. Mary Bartlett, Air War College Leadership and Innovation Institute

  Although courses and programs are being built to help Airmen and Guardian better process their emotions and experiences, Bartlett stressed that these ordeals are pivotal in self-improvement and sustainment.

  “Resilience isn't about training people to not experience or express emotion,” Bartlett stressed. “In fact, I would submit that it's the opposite. It's about helping people understand that there's an emotionality in everything that we do. Every bit of information that you receive is assigned an emotion. We are emotional, psychological creatures, so you cannot separate that out. Resilience is about helping people understand their emotions, identify their emotions, manage their emotions, and then utilize their emotions in a constructive way that helps them to grow and become better people.”


  Bass pointed to the Spectrum of Resilience as a ladder of care, asking Airmen to use all the rungs to maintain their individual wellness. First, Airmen can develop healthy coping skills and lean on family members or loved ones, then their wingmen and peers. 
  “The Spectrum of Resilience is really important on multiple levels because what it highlights is that there is an entire spectrum that impacts my resilience as well as yours, and it starts with self,” Bass explained. “I’ve got to take care of myself so that I can be able to be the full round that I need to be for myself, for my family members and for our Air Force.”
  If the issue is still mentally taxing, the Air Force provides support entities such as Military and Family Life Counseling Services, chaplains and counselors that can provide lower-level assistance. 
  “If we all, as Airmen, tap into the Spectrum of Resilience, perhaps we don’t go from being refined to the clinical piece right away,” Bass emphasized. “Perhaps we can tap into some of the spectrum where I can call a friend, wingman or chaplain before I get to that opposite end of the spectrum and absolutely need clinical help.”

  Airmen serving in high-tempo career fields, deployed locations and training units don’t always have access to their loved ones or wingmen to talk through stressors and navigate life adjustments. In some of these locations, Airmen are provided an additional resource: True North.


  “Our mission in True North is to help give commanders the tools they need to help keep their forces and families mission-ready. We do that by intervening early and in the unit if we can, or by connecting them with services close by and trying to keep them as mission-ready as possible.”

-Steffanie Sargeant, 37th Training Wing lead True North clinical social worker

  True North is an alternative treatment program designed to help those who don’t currently need clinical assistance. Since it’s embedded into the unit, it’s easier to access than the local military treatment facility and often has hours that cater to the population it’s serving.  
  “Access to care is really challenging across the Air Force; when people call for care at the military treatment facility, we’re having to route them through the BHOP [Behavioral Health Optimization Program] to get them access to services before they go into the mental health clinic,” Sargeant explained. “All of that time takes members away from their unit and there’s a lag time. The benefit of having True North embedded in the unit prevents members from having to go through that wait, through several different appointments, and we can vector them to the right place if we’re not able to help them.”


  ​“Our greatest strength is our people, and we are committed to their well-being. Therefore, I firmly believe that seeking mental health treatment is a sign of strength and resilience.”

-Gilbert Cisneros Jr., Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness​

  The Air Force and DoD continue to introduce new programs, campaigns and procedures aimed at streamlining to handle mental health services. Gilbert Cisneros, Jr., the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, signed a policy in May 2023 to implement the Brandon Act across the DoD. This introduces an avenue to self-refer for mental health evaluation confidentially, intending to encourage service members to get the help needed.
  “Our greatest strength is our people, and we are committed to their well-being,” Cisneros said. “Therefore, I firmly believe that seeking mental health treatment is a sign of strength and resilience. This policy, spurred by the passage of the Brandon Act, is an important step in ensuring that our service members are able to seek mental health treatment when and how they need it. We honor Petty Officer Brandon Caserta’s memory by ensuring that our Military Services have procedures and processes in place that allow service members to seek help confidentially, for any reason, at any time, and in any environment, and aim to reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health care."