01/06/11 — The battles: Chaplain answers questions

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The battles: Chaplain answers questions

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on January 6, 2011 2:33 PM

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Col. Howard Stendahl

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following interview was conducted in October, shortly after Col. Howard Stendahl, command chaplain with Air Combat Command, came to speak at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base following two suicides among Goldsboro-based airmen. Since the most recent suicide -- a third was reported just a month after the chaplain's visit -- The News-Argus has been unable to schedule a followup interview with Stendahl.

What have you heard from airmen about what they are going through?

As Command Chaplain for Air Combat Command, I am responsible to Gen.

William Fraser, our ACC Commander, for religious freedoms throughout the 14 wings and many additional installations and locations worldwide. Though not able to speak to each airman in ACC or around the Air Force, it is evident after decades of high operations tempo that stress on people and weapon systems is vastly greater than it was when I entered active duty more than 25 years ago.

Some career fields are more frequently deployed than others -- Security Forces, Special Operations and others -- but the repeated cycle of deployment, reunion/reintegration, then deployment again, is a significant challenge to airmen and their families. I am surprised at how little "whining" I hear, but I do hear honest, candid conversation about ways we can maintain our "resilience" in the face of our nation's need for responsive and capable air power.

We can and will continue accomplishing our mission of supplying combat-ready forces to the warfighting commanders, but in this resource-constrained environment, Air Force leaders are taking a hard look at doing so in a responsible, responsive way. Our active duty and reserve component airmen know this and all of them with whom I speak are glad they joined the Air Force and they understand the mission.

What pressures face them that might not have affected Cold War-era warriors?

Clearly, the constant, unrelenting requirement to deploy differs greatly from the "stand-off" nature of the Cold War. I recall bombers on alert and greater numbers of missiles prepared and combat-ready years ago. We had large garrisons of forces stationed overseas, particularly in Europe, prepared for very different scenarios of warfare against nation-states of peer or near-peer military stature. In the 21st Century, we face "asymmetrical" adversaries, terrorist threats and those who would do us harm in ways quite different from what we anticipated with the former Soviet Union. Current overseas contingency operations require a light, lean force capable of projecting power with precision, for extended periods of time in very distant places with little or no base infrastructure and support. Airmen today deploy repeatedly, throughout their careers, to sometimes very austere locations. The cycle of life for airmen requires a new resiliency, a new flexibility to practice the profession of arms to meet a challenge unique in American history.

Families face the pressure of mom or dad deploying for 179 days or more at a time, repeatedly for some career fields. There is grief when deployment draws near, knowing a loved one will be away for months at a time and at risk. Adjustment to a spouse or parent's absence develops, looking forward to reunion at home and reintegration in the community.

When that homecoming happens, it is joyful; but these reunions require sensitivity and gentle, gradual reintegration into relational systems which have become accustomed to their absence. I know many families for whom this is a repeated, cyclical pattern. It is a new pressure, a new reality to military life.

What programs/policies are in place across the command to prevent suicides?

It is true that today's military member faces challenges unique to this time in history.

Gen. Fraser has stated that "being fit to fight means more than just being physically fit. With all of the demands on our airmen and their families, psychological and emotional health are just as important to our overall fitness, and to our readiness as a command."

With that as his intent, our commander has directed a philosophy and approach called Comprehensive Airman Fitness. There are four pillars designed to support and improve everyone's well-being, enhance a good balance between work and home life, and strengthen each airman's personal readiness. They are physical, social, mental, and spiritual.

Air Force agencies work together -- medical, personnel, safety, chaplain, and others -- with commanders at every ACC installation to employ this philosophy and approach to life and mission, with a view toward increasing the resilience and health of every airman.

More than just a "program," Comprehensive Airman Fitness seeks to prepare airmen before they deploy so they can carry out their mission in the deployed setting faithfully, equipped to return home with resources to reunite with loved ones and reintegrate into the community in a healthy way.

What perspective have you gained from you visit to Seymour Johnson?

First, I love North Carolina. Goldsboro is a beautiful place and the people are wonderfully hospitable on every occasion of my visits.

My visits to Seymour Johnson are also encouraging as I see thousands of airmen devoted to our nation's defense, eager to serve and carry on, while not minimizing or ignoring the realities of today's challenges. Commanders and other leaders at the 4th Fighter Wing take seriously the grief occasioned by such times as we recently shared, but look for ways to encourage and lead people to make healthy choices and be good "wingmen" for each other.

While I mourn the deaths of those who recently died by suicide, I am reminded that these incidents are not evidently related. They are distinct tragedies. We look for trends in such tragic events and usually see that relationship and/or workplace issues are often ingredients that lead to suicidal behavior. Rarely do I see these profoundly selfdestructive behaviors immediately prior to or upon return from deployment.

It is also my view that people take their lives when in despair and alone. There are exceptions, but despair seems to grow in loneliness.

Our military communities may have less communal living arrangements for younger airmen, and increasingly we find family members living out in the civilian communities rather than on-base. Though my perspective is purely speculative, greater amounts of time spent alone, along with some of the other challenges unique to our period of history may contribute to increased incidents of suicide. That is why I am grateful for Gen. Fraser's emphasis on Comprehensive Airman Fitness as we seek to strengthen the whole airman in his or her resilience in facing challenges specific to our time.

What do you believe the state of our local airmen is as the base tries to move forward and get back to the mission at hand?

Airmen of the 4th Fighter Wing were immensely attentive to my presentations and realistic about the challenges I have described.

Nobody made light of nor minimized the tragic nature of the loss of two airmen. I heard the wing commander admonish his leaders with the model of his own sincerity, that we must properly and respectfully recognize what has occurred, and set the example in our own conduct for the way ahead.

"Take care of each other" was something I overheard in conversations. "Be a good wingman" is something we say so often that we might begin to perceive it as overused, but it can never be over-practiced. It was one of the greatest honors of my military life to speak to virtually every military member of the 4th Fighter Wing, but a visitor from Headquarters ACC will never be able to sustain what I saw among thousands of airmen, silent in respect for their lost wingmen, but supportive and encouraging each other when I urged them to "choose life" rather than self-destructive behavior.

My confidence in the 4th Fighter Wing and its readiness arises from observations of leadership devoted to the people they lead. To a person, they reflected seriously on what has transpired, but every one of them also looks forward, intentionally reflecting on ways they can elevate the spirit of the "wingman" culture in their own units, carrying on in the tradition of the wing and Air Combat Command.

I am prayerful for those who lost loved ones to suicide. I am grateful for every airman at Seymour Johnson for their attention to the occasion of this grief, and to their continued devotion to the practice of the profession of arms and the defense of our nation.