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Being resilient: Air University’s RTF promotes well-being for all service members

  • Published
  • By Lori M. Quiller
  • AFCLC Outreach Team

According to a 2021 Medial Surveillance Monthly Report Update, between 2016 and 2020, more than 450,000 active-duty service members were diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder. In 2020 alone, mental health disorders comprised the highest number of hospital bed days and the second-highest total number of medical encounters for active-duty military.

As reported cases of suicide and mental health issues among service members increased, military leadership stepped in. In September 2022, Air Force leaders unveiled a new initiative encouraging support for service members and their families. The Spectrum of Resilience, found on the service’s Integrated Resilience website, provides supportive opportunities and resources across the Department of the Air Force.

At Air University, the study of resilience began as a project by the then-Air University surgeon general chair. By 2018, the program evolved into a full research task force involving students from Air Command and Staff College and Air War College. Currently, the effort is spearheaded by Associate Professor of Cross-Cultural Communication Dr. Susan Steen of the Air Force Culture and Language Center, with support from Dr. Mary Bartlett, associate professor of leadership at the Leadership and Innovation Institute, and Dr. Amy Baxter, director of research for the Global College of Professional Military Education. In addition, the Resilience Research Task Force is sponsored by the office of Air Force Integrated Resilience, led by Brig. Gen. Debra Lovette.

In December 2022, members of the Resilience RTF gathered at AFCLC to exchange perspectives and hear out-briefs from a group of Squadron Officer School’s Air University Advanced Research elective participants. These students spent five weeks studying best practices for building winning cultures and strengthening social connections as keys to bolstering military resilience. Their findings, which will be integrated into the overall RTF annual out-briefs, were presented to AFCLC Director Howard Ward and SOS Commandant Col. Lance Rosa-Miranda.

The RTF’s goal is simple – teaching service members how to create healthy, connected communities and build skillsets to cope with adversity.

“Our emphasis is on creating cultures of resilience within the military. We focus not only on personal resilience but social resilience and organizational culture as well,” Steen said. “We know resilient organizations aren’t simply the result of having lots of resilient individuals but of something more – an interaction of people, environment, relationships, social connection, structures. Our task force explores these elements to strengthen resilience in and across the Air and Space Forces.”

Students participating in the RTF engage interdisciplinary perspectives to understand resilience to identify best practices for strengthening resilience in the military. The students hope to return to their commands with new tools to promote resilience in their units and organizations.

Maj. Greg Swendsen is an Air University Fellow and instructor at SOS. As one of the first master resilience trainers for Air Mobility Command, he received his resilience training at Fort Jackson, S.C., before arriving at ACSC. He is also a graduate of the Resilience RTF and is helping lead the SOS study group.

“I feel like officers have limited opportunities to understand resilience at a level deep enough to weave into our personal leadership philosophies,” Swendsen said. “Integrating AU’s Resilience RTF into SOS was an opportunity to provide leaders at the flight or equivalent level an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of resilience and a safe space for them to work through what resilience looks like in their unit. Company-grade officers and their civilian equivalent counterparts have a unique opportunity to be on the front lines and are best positioned to lead culture change, build connections, and foster resilience within our DAF.”

A previous member of the Resilience RTF, U.S. Army Col. Nic Cabano directs the country’s only Role IV veterinary patient care platform at the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Veterinary Service, LTC Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. Military working dogs injured in the line of duty anywhere in the world may receive comprehensive care through his specialty hospital.

Before his experience with the task force, Cabano said he did not fully appreciate how supportive and impactful a community could be for service members.

“Service members deserve trust and engagement rather than isolation and entitlement,” Cabano explained. “The opportunity to construct an organization where members may thrive instead of simply survive, truly inspires me. However, to successfully promote resilience across the military community, we must establish a sense of shared responsibility for the well-being of the whole. After all, isn’t that what we mean when we proclaim: ‘I will never leave a fallen comrade’?”

Inspired by his experience with the Resilience RTF, Cabano wrote his master’s thesis at AWC on the subject and has presented material related to resilience at multiple educational arenas for the Air Force and Army.

Lt. Col. Amanda Altman, commander of the 422d Communications Squadron at RAF Croughton in Northamptonshire, England, knew she was selected for command after attending ACSC and joined the RTF because she wanted to broaden her understanding of how to cultivate resilience within her future squadron.

“Over time, I observed individuals who demonstrate tremendous resilience in the face of adversity but have seen others be defeated. I wanted a better understanding of what causes that difference. Furthermore, I wanted to develop resilient Airmen capable of serving through the highs and lows of life over time. I felt the Resilience RTF was an opportunity to explore that topic in preparation for command,” Altman said. “More than anything, the Resilience RTF increased my awareness of coping mechanisms and the interplay of resilience across different domains. I enjoyed finding ways to integrate what I learned into my future job.”

Altman said what she learned from the Resilience RTF served as “a cornerstone of my command.” Being in an overseas deployment, she’s sensitive to the needs of those in her command who are far from home. So, in September 2022, she published a video to discuss those challenges.

As the Air Force continues to build the Spectrum of Resilience model, Steen said she believes the Resilience RTF will become even more essential to the welfare of service members and families in their efforts to grow and prosper.

“Resilience is not something some people have, and others don’t,” she said. “It can be learned and honed, but it’s not one-and-done. It’s a process that occurs over time, drawing on resources and skills we develop before, during, and after trauma, or loss, or disruption.”

For more information or assistance with spouse/family resources, resilience, suicide prevention, domestic violence/abuse, sexual assault/harassment, quick help guides, and civilian workforce resources, visit the Department of the Air Force Resilience website at www.resilience.af.mil.

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