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Military, civilian Airmen use resiliency training to overcome struggles

  • Published
  • By John Ingle
  • 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs

Training Airmen how to fix things is something Sheppard Air Force Base has become experts at doing.

Whether it’s providing skills to keep aircraft flying, communications transmitting, plumbing flowing and more, technical training is the signature mission for the 82nd Training Wing that prepares Airmen to continue advancing the Air Force mission. The hands-on technical aspects of what Sheppard does, in the grand scheme of things, is relatively easy because it can be found in technical orders and is often laid out in step-by-step instructions.

But what about life skills that aren’t so black and white? A lot of grey area exists when it comes to dealing with some of life’s curve balls. Lots of suggestions have been provided as ways of coping with or facing individual challenges head-on, but that’s where they often end – as suggestions.

A recent and more deliberate push has occurred that gives Airmen more empowerment over their specific situations. It teaches them how to choose to respond to the event in a positive way and persevere instead of bottling it up and letting it negatively impact them and their career.

Resiliency training is a relatively new concept that provides tools Airmen need to recognize, face and overcome personal challenges and how to withstand, adapt, recover and grow from hardship. The theory is to have a cadre of trained individuals on base who can help people faced with adverse situations.

Adversity, though, doesn’t discriminate. It’s an equal-opportunity plight of misfortune, misery or tragedy and attacks all Airmen, military and civilian. The following are stories of personal burdens Airmen have encountered and how they were able to withstand, adapt, recover and grow from hardship through resiliency training they received while serving.

Practice what you preach

Working eight years on an Air Force flightline as an F-15 Eagle crew chief provides lots of opportunities for Airmen, especially if that eight-year span was during the time following the attacks of 9/11. The high-operations tempo can be exhilarating for some and testy for others.

That was the world in which Michael Battaglino, now a 363rd Training Squadron curriculum development manager, lived while on active duty from 2005-2013. Despite the incredible group of Airmen he worked with during that time, it was stressful, he said, and he often times found himself to be angry.

He said flightline supervisors and flight chiefs were around to look after junior Airmen under their leadership, but it seemed to be more of a cursory check than a sincere discussion of one’s physical, emotional and mental well-being.

It was in early 2015 Battaglino was introduced to resiliency training as a civil service employee, although that first experience wasn’t the best introduction to the concept, he said. There was a push at the time to have all instructors to become Resilience Training Assistants, regardless if they believed or bought into the program. A few students in that eight-hour initial class spoke ill of it, he said, questioning the need to have “touchy-feely” conversations with Airmen.

“I was just overwhelmed with emotions because I was like, yeah, we really do need talk about these things because the experiences that I went through on the flightline, if I had any of these skills or ever had a conversation about any of this stuff, I would’ve been so grateful for that because I didn’t,” he said. “I went through periods of depression when I was doing that and I had anxiety … it pushed me to work harder so there was never really a sign that I was breaking down.”

A few months later in 2015, Battaglino was in another class to become a Master Resilience Trainer for Sheppard. Little did he know the soon-to-be master would become the student in the relatively near future, regardless how much he prepared himself for what was ahead.

Life is cyclical, he said, a combination of good and bad times – hopefully more good than bad. There is always something to dwell on, he said, but the biggest difference is often how someone chooses to react.

“We’re all going to go through something, and that’s one of the skills that we teach in resilience,” he said. “We’re all going to go through different levels of things and you try not to compare.”

Battaglino said having an internal and external support structure is what helps individuals overcome whatever life throws their way, and that was no different for his personal resiliency experience.

The Avon, Connecticut, native said since he was about 19-20 years old, his father, Michael, had been battling an early onset of Alzheimer’s, this after already undergoing the effects of serving in the Vietnam War and later surviving a major car accident and multiple surgeries. He and his family watched his father deteriorate for 10 years, while his mother, Diane, served as his wife for more than 30 years and primary caregiver the final 10.

His father died in July 2017. It was then, he said, that he had to decide how he was going to react. Would it be in a way that took care of his needs and those of his family, specifically his mother, or would choose a path that could lead to personal destruction?

Battaglino said he could have turned to alcohol, fallen back into depression or any number of options before him when his father died. Instead, he applied the concepts learned in resiliency training and those he now teaches to others to help guide his decision and bounce back from a trying time in his life.

The master trainer said being able to draw from his own experiences has enabled him to connect with others and show the concept works.

“If you share a story like that like I did to a room of 60 people, odds are that you’re going to have a handful of people who are like, ‘Yeah, I experienced something very similar’ or ‘I might experience that in the next couple of years based on my life,’” he said. “When you add that authenticity to the training, that really gives people the perspective that this really isn’t just a slide show and this guy really believes in it.”

Road map to happiness

Alyxandra Anguiano knew she was a little different when she was growing up in the Houston, Texas, area. She said she was brought up with traditional viewpoints of right and wrong, what was and wasn’t acceptable based on strong southern beliefs.

Her teen years were particularly difficult as she tried to figure out who she was, mostly keeping it to herself that although she was born a male, she felt her true being was that of a female.

“I was brought up with the mindset that this is not right, this is immoral. Being transgender is something that is bad,” she said. “It took me a long time to get past that.”

The now-26-year-old aircraft armament instructor at the 363rd TRS said that all came to a head at the end of 2010 at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, her first duty assignment after technical training here at Sheppard AFB and while she was still legally identified as a male, as far as the government and everyone else was concerned. She said she battled through depression because of the ordeal and relied on her resiliency training to work through what she called her “breaking point.” It was then she finally confided in two of her friends of her hidden secret during a late-night gathering between the three at a 24-hour eating establishment.

After developing a support system at Holloman, Anguiano said the same hardships developed while on her first deployment, a stressful environment that didn’t have the support structure to which she had grown accustomed. Anguiano said the atmosphere in which she worked made it difficult to separate herself from the situation.

“I was having a hard time,” the eight-year Air Force veteran said. “There was no privacy. Nowhere for me to cope. No outlet; nothing. I was having to bottle up all of my emotions, all that depression, all that pain.”

Resiliency training kicked in again, she said, and she went and talked to the chaplain, who referred her to Mental Health. After a few sessions, Anguiano said she was finally able to come to grips with reality regarding who she was. She said she had tried for some time to put that notion in the back of her mind and try to convince herself that her perceived gender didn’t exist.

After the nine-month deployment, Anguiano returned to Holloman. Having come to terms with her predicament, another one had popped up: Transgenders were still not allowed to serve in the military and her enlistment contract was up relatively soon. She faced a very real decision regarding her future in the military.

It was also during that time she was moving from a developed support system at Holloman to new territory at Tyndall AFB, Florida, where she’d have to start over.

Things seemed to move in her direction in 2016 when President Barack Obama announced his plans to repeal ban for transgenders serving in the military. She paused her plans to separate from the military, despite her desire to keep serving.

“This is what I always wanted to do. I always wanted to be an Airman. I always wanted to be in the military and serve my country,” she said. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to do that and stay the same, so I decided I wanted to get out. But when he (Obama) brought forth the proposal to remove the ban, I was like, ‘Ok. Pause. Let’s see what happens. I might actually be able to continue my career.”

Anguiano was able to re-enlist in May 2016 at RAF Lakenheath, England, and continue her career and more changes from the reversal of the transgender ban began to roll out, including more and more service members opening up about their own situations. Although Defense Department guidance was being released, the Air Force had not yet released its own guidance on the matter. She was not able to get the recommended treatment necessary for the transformation process.

After battling and waiting for an Air Force response and paying for the treatment out of her own pocket, Anguiano said it came time for her to share with her roughly 60-person maintenance crew at Tyndall, with support from her leadership, what she had kept from them for so long.

“I decided that I needed to be upfront and open about this from start to finish,” she said. “Not only did it give me nowhere to hide, no reason to restrain myself, but it would reduce rumors.”

Anguiano said about 60 percent of the group were indifferent about her decision so long as she did her job and the mission was completed, another 30-35 percent were supportive, and the remainder were opposed and had negative views on it, some cutting off all contact while others didn’t go along with her new gender and some were blatantly derogatory to her.

After another presidential election, Anguiano’s and other transgender military members’ careers are once again at the forefront of attention as the issue continues to be debated. Anguiano said her escape had always been her work, and she came to realize that for now, nothing was going to happen and she can continue to serve her country.

Anguiano arrived at Sheppard in December 2017 to become an aircraft armament instructor, a role she has wanted to fill since she graduated from the schoolhouse in 2010. She said resiliency training was pivotal at a time when she felt lost and alone. Despite the stigmatism of seeking Mental Health help during tough times, she said sometimes there isn’t another choice when someone is reaching their breaking point.

She said she wouldn’t be the NCO she is today without resiliency training. She said she is able to use her personal experiences and use of those resiliency skills to help young Airmen cycling through her classroom apply those skills to their own journey.

I’m not a failure

A daughter, a wife and a successful occupation. For Capt. Boyd Stewart, a 29-year-old 363rd TRS Air Force Logistics Officer School instructor from Weston, Idaho, life was good and he was on the path to a successful family life and career.

Stewart said the resiliency training he received during his six years in the Air Force – some of that spent as an instructor at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, before coming to Sheppard more than two years ago – has provided tools to help fight through day-to-day frustrations, big and small. Regardless of rank, position or social status, the concept, he said, can be applied to all struggles.

Stewart’s personal avalanche of challenges began in late 2017 when two significant events occurred one right after the other. The first, he said, came in December when his wife told him she was no longer happy in their marriage and wanted a separation, which eventually led to the request for a divorce.

A week later, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It was pretty much anything and everything that could go wrong was going wrong,” he said. “It was very, very overwhelming for me. It was one of those situations where I think a lot of us in the military are type A and think that we can fix everything. I kind of realized that I couldn’t fix everything and there were things that were beyond my control.”

Stewart said he began running down the resilience checklist to start applying those skills to cope with what was happening in his life – looking for “the good” aspects of the situation, surrounding himself with people who understood the process, developing goals during the turmoil. He said part of the process was realizing he couldn’t do it on his own and he needed specialized help.

He said he decided he needed to seek assistance from 82nd Medical Operations Squadron Mental Health professionals to further work through his ordeal. He said he was at a point in which he had no motivation for work or maintaining his life, but knew he needed to see someone who would be able to help.

Stewart said he felt like a failure because his marriage was falling apart, and also felt like a failure as a father. But, he said the support he received from friends who helped apply resiliency skills and from Mental Health helped him get ahead of and overcome the situation. In the end, he said he realized he isn’t a failure and that one moment doesn’t define who he is.

“It is really easy through those situations to be really negative and to want to throw a pity party, but these resiliency skills help you realize – so, for me personally, even though it’s a huge event, it’s not,” he said. “When you wrap your head around and it and you start to apply those skills, you really start to realize it’s an event. At the time, it was catastrophic. It was heart breaking. But once you’re through it, it’s just an event.”

Stewart said he was able to take that comprehensive approach to self-healing by focusing on his mind, body and spirit to resolve the personal dilemma he was undergoing. He said for those who might question the importance of resilience or its effectiveness, he wants to remind them that everyone has issues, big and small. Just because they aren’t in the midst of a personal challenge doesn’t mean they won’t later or that someone they know now isn’t and needs their help.

“I get it. I get that it’s another training that we have to do. It’s another requirement of many that we have,” he said. “But you never know when that opportunity is going to present itself to help someone by using these skills, and when that opportunity comes, that is a life-defining moment.”

Stewart said regardless the situation or how big or small someone might believe their ordeal is, don’t suffer in silence.

“If you need help, get help,” he said.

Click here for more information about the Air Force Resiliency program.