A Day in The Life of an Airman

Chris and I walked onto one of the enormous aircraft on Dover Air Force Base. The size of the plane was daunting, but even more intimidating were the myriad buttons, knobs, switches, levers, wires, and lights that adorned the cavernous inside of the craft. We were experiencing “A Day in the Life of an Airman” and this was such an apt setting for a discussion regarding the mental health challenges our military personnel face. The job itself is immense. 

In its scope. 

In its responsibility. 

In its demanding schedule. 

In its life and death nature. 

I cannot manage a check engine light in my Honda –let alone seemingly hundreds of them at the age of 19. The hours on base are long so camaraderie is essential to manage the demand. We asked a few engineers how they felt about all of this responsibility at such a young age. There was an admirable dedication to one another, duty, and country that belied an exhaustion. The training and supervision of the team equipped them to fulfill their mission, but there is a human connection that seemingly gets lost to the responsibility and the uniform. 

Chris remarked in his talk to a packed room of airmen later that day, ‘the gifts and challenges of a military uniform and athletic uniform share a similar mental health lens’. There is a dedication to something larger, but you can become a number. The name on the front is more important than the name on the back. The uniform has blood, sweat, and tears as well as triumphs and losses. It can be difficult to take it off. Our minds and heart might not make the transition out of the uniform or the job that easily—especially when we pour so much of ourselves into it. 

So what is difficult about mental health in the life of an airman? From my view, we talked to so many that bravely and authentically voiced their struggles. The demands of the mission and the time in the uniform can make human connection difficult. The constant refrain is that airmen go to play  video games or watch a series in the valuable hours off-shift. It seems as though those authentic and brave conversations where someone can take-off the proverbial “uniform” for a moment can be few and far between. It is really rewarding to work with The USAF to establish more places and strategies to foster these moments of connection.  

Like any time you walk a day in someone else’s shoes, you come back to your own environment with a new perspective. We may not have the large aircraft or the dire mission at hand, but we still need that connection. We can put our own wires, bells, whistles, to distract us (or also just our phones/Netflix), but that connection is something we aren’t always looking for, but certainly need.