July 20, 2012

Caring for our Airmen in times of tragedy

by Lt. Col. Jupe Etheridge
733rd Air Mobility Squadron commander

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan (AFNS) — Do you have Airmen who depend on you? If so, are you ready for when unthinkable tragedies strike? How about an accidental death, a suicide, battlefield casualty, or even murder, are you prepared to inform families, friends and coworkers?

Prepared or not, the aftermath of such an event may be the most emotionally draining situation you have ever had to encounter. How will you communicate details of the tragedy as they emerge to those with concern?

Despite the fact that we live in the information age, most people would prefer not to learn of life and death circumstances via digital means. This is especially true for next of kin.

Once the tragedy is known and the details are understood, what is your role in helping your Airmen heal? As their supervisor, how much of a role will those who are suffering even permit you to have? Finally, what will you do with whatever access into their hurting lives they give you?

In February 2011, tragedy struck the 733rd Air Mobility Squadron when one of our own beloved Airmen was suddenly and brutally taken from us. Over the course of the next year, we slowly learned the details of his death and how to cope with the loss.

In the process, through mistakes and feedback, we also learned a lot about how to care for our Airmen in times of tragedy.

The first and most difficult step in any tragedy is notifying the next of kin and the unit. This is especially challenging in an overseas location, where some or all of the relatives may be thousands of miles away and in different time zones. In the first few hours and maybe even days after the tragedy, what will you tell your unit while waiting for the next of kin notification?

In an attempt to prevent a social media outbreak, you may elect to share very few details until the family is notified in accordance with AFI 36-3002. You can imagine how stressful this will be for your unit as they frantically try to figure out what has happened.
On the other hand, once the commander or first sergeant speaks, it becomes official, so words and timing must be considered very carefully and deliberately.

Once you are able to share the name of the victim with your Airmen, you can expect full counsel and attendance by the base traumatic response team from mental health unit, a group of experts trained to deal with tragedy at your base.

Additionally, the Airman and Family Readiness Center, Military Family Life Consultants and base chapel staff all have counseling experts and should be present. In a protracted and traumatic event, this team, among others, will prove invaluable in helping you care and communicate with your Airmen.

We asked each of them to be present every time we had a large forum to discuss the details of our tragedy. This slowly created a comfort level and a relationship between the counselors and our Airmen in need. While few of our Airmen approached them for help in these public forums, it made their services more familiar for one-on-one counseling as the months passed.

Once the initial notifications about the tragedy are complete, difficult details may continue to unfold. How and when you choose to share this information will affect how Airmen around you deal with the details provided.

In the first days after our tragedy, we found the most appropriate venue for sharing information was via squadron town hall meetings, where Airmen and families assembled alongside members of mental health, MFLC and the chaplain staff. We found that holding meetings in this format not only paved the way for candid discussion, but also identified those who may have been suffering in silence.

After days turned to months, sharing information became much more personal. We found that making the rounds at roll calls, shift changes and break areas were much more appropriate ways to identify those who most needed care, rather than at a larger, less personal forum like a town hall meeting.

Likely, the most important step to the healing process is getting those who are closest to the tragedy to talk about their feelings. They may not be comfortable talking about this at first with anyone from the crisis team or squadron leadership, but there may be a peer who is suffering along with them, who is ready to talk. As you share information, it is important that you tell your Airmen that it is okay to talk about what they are going through.

One of the most successful methods we found was seeking out those who we felt were most affected by the tragedy and talking to them in very small gatherings, or one on one. We did this with hopes of better understanding their grief, fear and anger, while at the same time expressing our desire to be open and care for their needs. We learned a great deal during these conversations and were often able to dispel rumors and quell frustrations. We later received feedback that these one-on-one discussions truly helped.

We may never be completely prepared for when tragedy strikes, however, in the Profession of Arms, it is seldom a question of if, but when. How will you care and communicate to the Airmen around you when that need arises? How will you care for yourself? We are charged to be leaders and wingmen; our military family depends on it.

Are you ready?

(Master Sgt. David Najera, the 733rd Air Mobility Squadron first sergeant, contributed to this article.)

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