F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. --
I sought help from Mental Health, and it made a positive difference for my career.
I enjoyed my second deployment. As a major in Kabul I did things I never imagined when I first joined the Air Force. I led convoys crossing the city, met with senior Afghan government officials, advised generals and made friends from all over the world who I will never forget. Friends who had my back, and I had theirs.
I vividly remember certain events during that deployment like the first time the incoming alarm went off and another major on her first deployment asked, "What's that?," and I yelled, "INCOMING, GET DOWN!"
I remember the time a marine general cleared our convoy to travel during an elevated threat level due to an active vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, because the goal of our key leader engagement was that important to the mission. While we were waiting for the compound doors to open a vehicle that matched the VBIED's description, with a military-aged male driving, left its place in traffic and pulled right up on my vehicle. We tensed but nothing happened.
I remember how often we canceled convoys because we were compromised or the route was blown up right before we were set to leave. On my 29 missions outside the wire for KLEs and negotiations, I learned to look calm and natural while my head was on a swivel.
When I left Kabul after six months, I felt fine. The day after I got home, I took my wife to dinner without the kids. After being gone so long, I was looking forward to it. However, when I got to the restaurant, it took a lot to control my anxiety. There were so many unmonitored people moving behind me, and there were many doors and windows outside of my line of sight. I found myself anxious everywhere I went – work, church, restaurants, stores. My head was still on a swivel while trying to look calm.
At work I found it hard to concentrate. Car alarms in the parking lot and weather warnings on computers could trigger my “GET DOWN” reflex quicker than I could realize it was a benign notification. People noticed, and I decided to get help before things got worse. I made an appointment with Mental Health.
At Mental Health I learned what was causing my anxiety and my reflexive actions. For me, just understanding what was happening in my brain made a huge difference. The mystery was gone. I was normal. I also learned how to control my reflexes and my anxiety.
Many people feel Mental Health has a stigma. However, I was confident getting help would not hurt my career. I also knew if I confronted the stigma, it would go away. The fear of the stigma gives it power. And while there may be people who see going to Mental Health as a weakness, their uninformed opinions reflect their insecurities, not mine.
We all have problems and stress in our lives. Issues can arise from deployments, but they can also result from relationship or financial difficulties, family struggles, physical illness or chronic pain, and a host of other factors. No stress inducer is any more legitimate than another.
Believe it or not, most people are more understanding than we imagine. When I was embarrassed because I had made it halfway to the floor in a crowded room when a weather alarm sounded, everyone said they understood and saw no shame in it. That is what they expected from someone who recently deployed.
In the end, doing nothing and letting my work performance suffer could have hurt my career. Too many Airmen let fear and the stigma of Mental Health stop them from getting help. Ultimately, they are directed to get help as a result of poor work performance or misconduct, and it’s too late.
No one would try to run a PT test on a broken ankle because there is no stigma attached to breaking a bone. But too many Airmen suffer in silence and let their careers suffer in order to avoid a stigma we all perpetuate by staying silent.
If someone needs the help Mental Health can provide, I would tell them to stand tall, walk in and make an appointment to get the help they need. It will not hurt your career. There are more people like me than you know. You are not alone.