HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
At the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, people from all over the world celebrate the arrival of a clean slate. Three hundred sixty-five opportunities to overcome failure and reach new goals – the infamous new year’s resolutions.
In the midst of creating a budget, trying a new diet or committing to a new exercise routine, mental health is often overlooked.
As one of the four pillars of Comprehensive Airman Fitness, the Air Force provides many resources to care for mental fitness.
But pursuing mental fitness is not always an easy journey for Airmen.
After 17 years of enlisted service, one Airman decided to take big steps towards improving his mental health and strengthening his resiliency.
“I have had to learn it the hard way and it has taken time,” said Tech. Sgt. Dustin Lockhart, 635th Material Maintenance Squadron metals technologist.
Before Lockhart was assigned to the Basic Expeditionary Airfield Resources base on Holloman, he worked as an aircraft metals technologist.
“There is always a learning curve as a first-term Airman,” said Lockhart. “Knowing how to adapt, behave and operate in such a new environment is hard on anyone. If you add the influences of toxic leadership and the pressure to go harder and faster, the fear of asking the wrong questions or failing your team will break you – it broke me.”
Despite the challenges he faced as a young Airman, Lockhart stayed focused on his goal to retire in the Air Force.
But, with more rank comes more challenges.
“Learning how to lead as a young staff sergeant was already difficult for me, but I never realized what it meant to wear that rank until I PCS’d to a new base as an NCO,” said Lockhart. “I remember how stressful it was to be expected to know how to do everything, because I had the extra stripe. On top of that, my work environment was just as stressful as my last base and I would think to myself, ‘You might as well be deployed – the hours are the same, the money is better, and you would get a break from these people.’”
Lockhart struggled with himself to stay resilient for years, and new opportunities surfaced after PCSing to Holloman and working as an aircraft metals technologist for one year.
In October 2015, Lockhart was assigned to BEAR base on Holloman, a very different mission from the flightline life he was used to.
Instead of creating or repairing aircraft components, Lockhart now works side by side with Airmen trained in many areas to build large area mission structures, such as housing and hospitals, for deployed environments.
“Collaborating with young Airmen who have a completely different skill set opens up a ton of opportunities to be more innovative,” said Lockhart. “This kind of teamwork is one of the reasons comradery at BEAR base is so good. It is one of my favorite parts about working on Holloman.”
While Lockhart’s attitude toward his career began to see a positive light, his growing resiliency could not prepare him for his deployment to Afghanistan in 2018, when a structure he was building was targeted by indirect fire and missed him by 170 feet.
“Nothing can prepare you for that moment,” said Lockhart. “Everything the Air Force tries to teach us now, about resiliency, has purpose. Whether or not you are ready for it, the worst day of your life can appear when you least expect it.”
Returning from his deployment, Lockhart was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and began mental health treatment.
“I seek treatment for myself because I want to get better, but I really seek treatment for my family because they deserve the very best version of me,” said Lockhart. “I’m very grateful for the support my leadership has given me during this process to be able to do this for myself and my family.”
After a few sessions at Holloman’s mental health clinic, Lockhart was referred to a treatment program in central Florida that uses virtual reality technology and immersion therapy to treat trauma.
“There were days that I was crying and stuttering over my words,” said Lockhart. “I was so emotionally and physically drained every day. It took everything in me to stay awake for more than an hour when I got back to my room at the end of the day.”
Reliving his deployment every day through familiar sounds, images and vibrations, away from the distractions and stressors of life, Lockhart made progress.
Since returning to Holloman, Lockhart is optimistic about the future and takes pride in building up his mental fitness to not only help himself, but help others.
“I want to take the time to learn about my Airmen,” said Lockhart. “Their goals and ambitions are just as important, if not more important, than mine. I don’t want the fear I felt as a young Airman to roll into the new generation. Increasing unnecessary stress only decreases the resiliency we, as leaders and mentors, need to help them build.”
At home, Lockhart enjoys spending time with his family outdoors in the local area.
“Taking a walk with my wife and stepson and watching the sunset is one of my favorite things,” said Lockhart. “It’s a good recharge at the end of the day and a great way to share mental and physical fitness with my family.”
Lockhart and his wife welcomed a son in November 2018, and received orders to return to the aircraft side of Holloman where he hopes to finish the remaining years of his career before retiring in El Paso, Texas.
In 2019, Lockhart plans to finish his Bachelor of Science in leadership before pursuing another degree in mechanical engineering.
“Any dream worth having is a dream worth fighting for,” said Lockhart.