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01/06/11 — The battles: 6 airmen's views

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The battles: 6 airmen's views

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on January 6, 2011 2:33 PM

Some have been engaged in the global war on terror since before their children were born -- experiencing, for nearly a decade, more milestones over the Internet and telephone than in person; coming home from theater only to have to, between tours, try to find the balance between long shifts at a no-fail job and family.

Others admit that their youth, and not yet having a spouse and children to support, makes life easier -- but say financial hardship is an all-too familiar aspect of life as a newly enlisted airman; that sometimes the desire to serve, alone, just doesn't seem like enough to make the Air Force a career.

They come from different walks of life, but six men currently stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base have similar fears: that their families, or future families, will be forced to endure continuous sacrifice in a war with seemingly no end; that they will continue to grow tired in the face of deployments and the day-to-day responsibilities that await them at home; that addressing those concerns might lead to disciplinary action -- perhaps, even a discharge from the service.

So none seemed all that surprised that since October, personal concerns combined with the challenges of serving might have led three of their comrades to make the decision to take their own lives.

"Shocked? No. I mean, there's a lot of pressure. People really don't get it," a 29-year-old airman said. "Try launching a multi-million-dollar aircraft every day -- here or downrange. Try knowing that if you screw up over there or over here that lives could be lost. And over there, the thing you're in charge of is one hell of an asset to those kids fighting on the ground.

"Then come home and watch your wife try to be graceful about the fact that you have to go bust a 10-hour shift to get ready for an inspection -- that you have to find some time to make sure you're up to the new fitness standards. And watch your kid look at you like he doesn't really have that same connection he has with Mom. ... It's tough. So, yeah, in a way, I feel sorry for every person who is going through this right now. I'm not the only one -- by far."

THE LIFE OF AN AMERICAN AIRMAN

Those near the end of their Air Force career said everything changed after terrorists attacked New York City nearly a decade ago.

"During the Cold War, you didn't really think about deployment. I mean, if somebody engaged our military, things would end in the push of a button, you know? And we all knew that," said an airman in his 40s who has been climbing the enlisted ranks since the late 1980s. "Then comes 9/11 and the whole mentality changes. They hit us where we live. We went to war, you know? And people talk about the Marines and soldiers leading the fight, but where would they be without that F-15E? What would be happening to them in the desert without air support?

"So the Air Force, we went from taking a back seat to putting in serious hours at home and downrange. I mean, you could argue that being home is more stressful than being at some base in Afghanistan. Sure, there are people shooting at you over there, but here you're worried about exercises and inspections -- not to mention the fact we still have to train for the fight we're going back to."

It's a lifestyle, the airman said, that has become far more demanding than the one he committed to all those years ago -- one that takes a great toll on the mind and body of the one wearing the uniform.

And he knows all too well that for some of the families formed before those "drastic" changes unfolded, it can be a tough burden to shoulder.

"One day, she just left," the airman said of his wife -- the mother of his two sons. "She left this note."

He unfolded it the same way he has every day for the past several years, wiping a tear from his eye before reading.

"She says, 'Deep down you must have known this day would come. Even when you're here it's like you're gone. The boys hardly know their father. You don't look at me the way you used to,'" the airman said, choking up. "It keeps going, but it gets kind of personal. Let's just say the last line is, 'This wasn't what we signed up for.'" The airman took a moment to collect himself -- lighting a cigarette and staring at the ground before continuing.

"That right there is what's hard. She's right and she's wrong, you know? I mean, I decided to serve, so yes, we did sign up for what comes with it. There's no way I would leave before I retire, and she knows that.

But 10 years of deployments?

Ten years of fighting and the insurgency is stronger than before we started? Ten years of all the bullshit that's waiting for us to get done when we're back at home station. It's tough to swallow sometimes. I mean, should I really be that surprised that my family fell apart?"

The airman is not alone.

In fact, the 2005 Department of Defense Survey of Health Related Behaviors Among Active Duty Military Personnel found that more than 10 percent of airmen have gotten divorced or separated since their last tour. And 14 percent said they have had a conflict in their relationship with a spouse, fiancée, boyfriend or girlfriend since they got back from theater.

A 26-year-old officer has a different perspective.

He joined the Air Force after the nation began campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But he still weighs the downside of starting a family as a member of the nation's fighting force.

"You could say I knew the score. I mean, part of the reason I joined was to fight," he said. "But other than dating here and there, it's hard to convince a woman that this is a great life for a married couple. I don't see how I can sell that when I don't see how it could work.

WHY MANY STAY SILENT

50 percent would do so because they believed leaders would blame them for the problem.

63 percent would avoid help-seeking because they believed that unit leaders might treat them differently.

42 percent said they believed that seeking help would probably or definitely damage their military career.

"Being at Bagram is bad enough without having to worry about your wife and kid back home. ... So in a way, if I ever really wanted to get a family started, I would probably get out (of the military). What's the point of bringing somebody else into all this?"

STRUGGLING WITH STEREOTYPES, STIGMA

All six of the airmen said there are two significant stereotypes that add to their mounting stress levels: that airmen sacrifice less than their counterparts in the Marine Corps, Army and National Guard and that those who wear their country's uniform should be mentally strong enough to cope with whatever their service brings their way.

And that 2005 survey supports their claim -- as does the 2007 Report of the Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health, which identifies stigma as "pervasive," something that "often prevents servicemembers from seeking needed care."

"Stigma, the shame and disgrace attached to something regarded as socially unacceptable, remains a critical barrier to accessing needed psychological care," the report read.

A 37-year-old airman said he was once chastised so much for confiding in his commanding officer that his wife was having a tough time coping with news of his pending deployment that he started ignoring the problems mounting at home.

"The guy looked me in the eyes and called me things you wouldn't be able to print. He told me to 'man up' and be a warrior," the airman said. "Civilians don't get it. They think of people in the military as super heroes. Well, we're not. And admitting that is seen as a weakness."

The 2005 survey found many airmen who agreed -- 42 percent said they believed that seeking help would probably or definitely damage their military career.

And the DOD Task Force found that "63 percent would avoid help-seeking because they believed that unit leaders might treat them differently and 50 percent would do so because they believed leaders would blame them for the problem."

So when that airman heard that several of his comrades had recently committed suicide, he thought about what factors might have contributed to their decisions to make that choice.

"I don't know what happened in those cases, and if the Air Force has its way, I never will. None of us will," he said. "But let me tell you, it is not OK to admit you have a problem -- that you're stressed out by everything that is demanded of us. Want to make rank?

Then keep your mouth shut. "So I really don't know what happened with these three guys, but I can see how someone in the military might feel like taking the easy way out. Some people just aren't strong enough to keep it all bottled up and they're afraid that if they talk, their career is pretty much over."

A 31-year-old airman said he "couldn't agree more" with his peer's take.

But he took it a step further, examining the perception of airmen versus Marines and soldiers.

"If a Marine or solider comes back from the desert with PTSD, it's somewhat expected. I mean, sure, those guys are supposed to be invincible, but people say, 'They were on the front lines. They saw some crazy shit over there. If they flip out, we should embrace them,'" he said. "But the Air Force has always had this reputation that we don't really fight -- that we're safe and sound while everybody else claims the victory.

If you or someone you love is facing depression, 4th Fighter Wing leadership urges you to utilize one of the following resources:

"Clearly, they don't know anything about our workload. In Afghanistan, we're picking up taskings that used to be reserved for the Army and Marines. And it's not like airmen are immune to some guy lobbing some weapon inside the wire at Bagram. And their tours might be longer, but when we're back here, it's a constant grind. Hell, I could count on two hands how many times I had dinner with my wife and daughter during the exercises and inspection we just got through. And guess what?

Pretty soon, we'll be gearing up for it all over again."

A 28-year-old officer said he believes that the pressure to be perfect -- an expectation he says comes with any military job, particularly when that job is as a member of the storied 4th Fighter Wing -- could have been a contributing factor to the recent tragedies at Seymour Johnson.

"Someone is always on your ass, and until you have lived that for a decade, you don't understand the toll it can take on you," he said.

"It's like being a teacher or a cop. You have this critical, critical role to play in our society, but you are underpaid and under-appreciated. Then you come home and your wife is having a meltdown. Sometimes, it really doesn't feel like it's worth it."

The young man opened up about the day he contemplated taking his own life.

"One day, I just felt like I couldn't handle it. My marriage was falling apart. It was getting harder and harder each month to pay the bills. I was facing another tour," he said.

"Thankfully, I had a friend who understood -- the guy I will always say saved my life. But not everyone has that. Especially in the military. Around here, you better be tough. You better be able to hack it. If you can't, they'll get rid of you and take away the modest livelihood you have. "I kept telling myself, 'All I wanted to do was serve my country -- to help make the world a safer place for my family.' People don't get just how much we sacrifice. But you never say that, because as soon as you start being honest, they'll break you down. They'll say, 'If you really cared about serving, if you were in it for the right reasons, you would just do it without all the bitching.' That's why people are killing themselves. They fear asking for help. They fear looking weak. They fear the consequences, and trust me, whether the commanders around here admit it or not, there are big-time consequences for opening your mouth."

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