Commentary

July 11, 2013

Be a Wingman: Understanding signs of substance abuse

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Staff Sgt. Brandon Shapiro
6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

Understanding the signs and symptoms of substance abuse is one way to be a good Wingman. Whether it be alcohol, illegal substances, or prescription medication abuse, Airmen must be able to recognize the signs and know when to refer.

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — The intrinsic responsibilities bestowed upon us as Wingmen, supervisors and members of the military, revolve around a creed of looking out for one another. Why is it that we tend to ignore those who are spiraling downward?

Often times, we as military members get fixated on our job and tasks-at-hand, overlooking the cries for help given off by those closest to us.

I recently had the honor and privilege to supervise one of the hardest working, technical professionals I have ever met; what many don’t know is that early in his career he received an Article 15 and Uniform Code of Military Justice punishment for the use of illegal substances.

Often times I would ask him, “What were you thinking?” “Why didn’t anyone help you?” and “What have you learned?” To my dismay, he informed me he was overwhelmed with his change in lifestyle, was looking for acceptance from the wrong individuals, and felt he had no one to turn to.

Despite his own wrongdoing, how was it that his supposed Wingmen, who worked eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week with him did not steer him in the right direction? After all of the resiliency training, substance abuse campaigns, and computer based training, how can this continue to happen? The answer is simple, it cannot!

Whether it be alcohol, illegal substances, or prescription medication abuse, we must be well versed in recognizing the signs, knowing how to counsel and identifying when to refer.

Don’t be caught up in the stereotypes of the common abuser either. Not too long ago, retired Lt. Gen. David Fridovich, the former deputy commander of U. S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, stood before a crowd of 700 and gave a testimony, sharing that for nearly five years of his career he was addicted to prescription narcotics. The fact of the matter is, substance abuse is not discriminatory; it can consume anyone.

Understanding the signs and symptoms of substance abuse is one of the many integral ways we accomplish this “Wingman” ideology and make sure our brothers and sisters are stable.

What we have to understand is substance abusers are likely looking for someone to confide in and help them find an out from the destructive lifestyle they have fallen into. It is important to establish a more intimate work relationship with our fellow Airmen.

Simply getting to know each other on a one-on-one level greatly increases our ability to identify subtle changes indicating a problem. Take time to ask personal questions, such as, “How was your weekend?”, ”How is your family doing?”, “What do you do for fun?”

Building this rapport is a double-positive; it builds trust and an understanding of how the individual thinks and reacts. It establishes a baseline of their demeanor.

In a perfect world there would be a rubric that could be used to pinpoint a substance abuser by actions, emotions and behaviors, but there’s not.

There are, however, signs that medical professionals have designated as associated behaviors. The following are recognized by the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence:

  • Waning duty performance
  • Frequent absences
  • Errors in judgment
  • Financial irresponsibility and shortcomings
  • Arrests or legal problems
  • Increased use of alcohol
  • Morning drinking and hangovers
  • Memory loss
  • Health problems related to drinking
  • Violent behavior
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Denial or dishonesty about use
  • Failed attempts to stop or cut down
  • Concerns expressed by family or friends
  • Reporting to work drunk, hungover or smelling of alcohol
  • Changes in behavior that are out of character for the individual

It is up to us to recognize and respond. We cannot let complacency and tunnel-vision be a pestilence in our workforce. Make it a standard to be cognizant of those around you. It may be a coworker, family member, or just someone who crosses your path who has succumbed to substance abuse. You may be the person who reaches out and saves their life.

As American philosopher Elbert Hubbard once said, “He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words.”

Additional Information:
If you or someone you know may be experiencing the signs or symptoms of substance abuse, the following individuals and organizations are available for immediate assistance: Your local Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Program team, chapel corps, medical group, first sergeant and Health and Wellness Center.

Editor’s note: Information in this article was gathered from Air Force Instruction 44-121, Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment (adapt) Program, the MAYO Clinic and the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence.




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