01/06/11 — The battles: Colonel to airmen: Talk, we will listen

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The battles: Colonel to airmen: Talk, we will listen

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

Col. Patrick Doherty acknowledges that today's Air Force is far different than the one he joined years ago.

"It is a different Air Force with the transformation of warfare and the whole environment we're in right now," he said. "We have been at war -- the Strike Eagles from the 4th Fighter Wing -- have been at war, since, pretty much, Desert Storm."

And the lifestyle that comes with being an American airman is more demanding, he said.

"There's no denying that we're busy.

Everybody from (the Department of Defense) on down the line recognizes we're busy," Doherty said. "As our Air Force has gotten smaller ... guess what that does for Seymour Johnson? The requirements don't go down.

Warfare doesn't go down. Our enemies don't stop activities because we've got fewer airframes to fly. So, there's a higher burden placed on the folks who are remaining."

But the 4th Fighter Wing commander is not convinced that those added stresses are creating insurmountable problems for the men and women he is charged with leading -- that the wear and tear of a decade of deployments has taken a devastating toll on families; that the sacrifices that accompany service in today's military are leading airmen to contemplate -- and commit -- suicide.

"The recent manifestations of what these individuals went through, I can't connect it (to that). In fact, when I go to the units that have been deploying the most ... they are the teams that have the lowest amount ... of suicide actions or something like that," Doherty said. "They are very connected. They are very focused. They are very mission-oriented.

"So I agree ... the ops tempo is high. We have been at war since 9/11 straight -- for nearly 10 years now. But we try to balance our lives.

We try to train airman ... to take on those challenges that are given to us and have a balanced life across the board, to make sure everyone is spiritually, mentally and physically fit to take on those challenges."

Nevertheless, in response to three recent suicides among airmen stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, the colonel has made mental health his No. 1 priority for 2011 -- the commander has gone as far as creating a task force to attack problems before they turn into tragedies.

"We are busting down the old paradigms," Doherty said. "We have talked a lot about this topic and I have spoken specifically with each of our commanders.

There is no stigmatism. We want our airmen to get help. We want them to connect with the people who can help them."

And despite the fears expressed by several of his airmen, those who have issues should feel comfortable opening up, he added.

"That is the whole message to the entire 4th Fighter Wing. 'We need to open up and talk. There is no stigmatism to having challenges and acknowledging that you're having challenges and seeking help.

Talk to somebody,'" Doherty said. "I can tell you right up front that nobody thinks these people are weak.

Everybody is torn thinking through where these people were at that would make them think (suicide) was their only course of action.

That is what tears at people's hearts."