Holidays are a time for family and friends. It is a time of togetherness.
Big meals, comfy pants, football games, holiday movies, and Santa, are traditions for many. Holiday spirit is the norm.
Unfortunately, this year, coronavirus threatens to infect people with cases of bah humbug and potentially worse, as restrictions increase and become the new normal.
As colder, darker winter days approach, breaks in personal contact and connections can be just as impactful and deadly as the COVID virus itself. This presents concern.
After all, the military continues to struggle with solutions to unacceptable suicide rates.
In the Air Force, many suicides involve relationship problems of some kind. With growing restrictions and realities of isolation, strained relationships and stress can surface.
Personal acts and longer-term actions can reduce strain on individuals, relationships, and families. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. “CQ” Brown says, “accelerate change or lose.” This applies here.
Start with kindness. Give others four-star general officer treatment. Over the course of 25 years, two Pentagon stints and multiple assignments, I have noticed four-star generals get the very best sides of almost every person. When people transit the rarified Headquarters Air Force senior leadership Top 5 leadership workspaces, they transform. The most cynical become civil, the employee known for the wrinkled shirts finds a sports coat and iron, and pleasantries fill the air. Imagine a world where our spouses, families, co-workers, and friends always got our very best sides. They may get good, but is it four-star quality?
Invest in family. At some point, you will leave military service, or it will tell you to leave. It happens to everyone, regardless of service or rank. Ensure your family remains intact. Giving families four-star treatment can be difficult if they get end-of-day energy and focus. What are you doing to recharge? Family hikes, date nights, family meals together? Don’t give your family the leftovers.
Build layers of support. Surround yourself with uplifting people. With social distancing and travel restrictions in place, this is important. Who helps you recharge, relax, and who can you trust? Recruit a chaplain on your team. Guidance from chaplains is confidential and many have in-depth experience helping people navigate challenging times. Who is helping the exhausted aircraft maintainer or troop feel cared for and supported? Do they have the necessary support?
Cull the herd. Social media forums and posts can be as bleak as Dante’s fifth ring of the Inferno or Legoland, where everything is awesome. Life ranges somewhere in between. Cull your social media contacts. Remove or hide bitter or unsupportive “friends.” They do not need to be part of your team.
Build or broaden your professional network. Create new connections. Use platforms like LinkedIn to broaden professional networks and engage to create new possibilities for partnership.
Mail early. Mail often. Send those holiday cards and gifts early to family and friends so they know they matter. Just make sure it is on time. Trust me, it counts.
Run, recover, repeat. Get physical. Set small, manageable fitness goals. Do not allow stress eating and the COVID 10-15 extra pounds find or stay with you. As holiday foods emerge and Netflix and Hulu tempt you, stay active. Put on that Class A service dress jacket. If it is tight, maybe say no to second helpings or the latest binge of shows.
Invest in self. Besides fitness, maximize tuition assistance, develop reading lists, and get professional certifications. Where able, have the Department of Defense pay for it. Continue to learn and grow, and …
Put up the Christmas tree early. This year, put up holiday decorations or celebrate your traditions whenever you feel like it. Invite someone who is alone over for the holidays. Create that environment to knock back any bah humbug blues.
If we know relationships and financial issues are leading causes of stress and suicide, let’s do more to accelerate change in these areas.
Areas to bring about change:
Professional license reciprocity. Continue to pursue professional license reciprocity for military spouses; this is a courtesy states should recognize as part of social responsibility and service. Where it does not exist, it drives families to make decisions to include breaking up or separating. By now, professional license reciprocity should be universal. Not having it places unneeded stressors on families as they reboot or suspend careers every few years or indefinitely.
Quality education. Those selected to support the presidential mission at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, face some of the lowest rated surrounding area schools in America. Some bases have surrounding school districts that are adequate to substandard. If Greatschools.org school ratings are a three or four out of 10, that percentage is good in baseball, but not in the pursuit of education. Not everyone has the financial means for private education. So they settle. This creates stress. Improvement and making sure communities make the grade is a leadership responsibility. DoD must also look for ways to maximize and restore broader tuition assistance benefits for service members where reduction has occurred.
Assignment consideration. The military does a good job joining military spouses together, but little to factor in professional households that are not dual military. This will present future recruiting and retention concerns for DoD and continues to place stress on families each time the assignment roulette wheel spins. If a position is not mission critical, why move people during peak COVID times? DoD can save money and reduce the stress of moves keeping folks in place, provide choice, and apply savings elsewhere.
Vacation days. Permit expanded leave balances for DoD civilians and military alike. Just as adjustment occurred for military personnel to carry greater leave balances into future years, the same should apply to DoD civilians.
Normalizing getting help. Many service members still do not fully trust that mental health assistance will not affect careers on some level. A relationship with mental health assistance should extend beyond crisis support. Similar to sports psychology, frame it in the context of achieving one’s full potential. Increase resilience and help-seeking behavior curriculum and training within DoD dependent school systems for children. Normalize assistance for the entire military family.
Leveraging networks. Collaborate with surrounding communities to organize holiday deliveries for military families in need. Considering all the flyovers, civic leader tours, open houses, etc. there are pockets of support and opportunity to improve quality of life for military families in those circles. DoD needs to creatively leverage existing and new partnerships to help military families. The possibilities are endless …
If military services fail to accelerate change, we will lose. We will lose valuable people and talent. We all share in the responsibility to do more.
For those struggling, help is available at National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, veterans press 1 or https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/talk-to-someone-now. Individuals can also go to Military One Source at 1-800-342-9647 or https://www.militaryonesource.mil/confidential-help. Wounded Warrior project is available at or https://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/programs/wwp-talk 1-888-997-2586.
Col. Christopher Karns is U.S. Africa Command’s director of public affairs.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, email@example.com.