Commentary by Col. Jonathan Sutherland
50th Network Operations Group commander
I remember the phone call three years ago like it happened an hour ago. My sister called to tell me our dad had died unexpectedly in his sleep. Among the many emotions I encountered shortly thereafter, I distinctly remember reflecting on my dad’s Air Force service as I watched his flag being folded by sharp Air Force honor guard members.
My dad only served four years in the Air Force but my childhood was filled with stories about his service and the people with whom he served. He rarely spoke of what he did, but focused more on his supervisors, peers and the few subordinates he had. He still knew them by name, where they were from and had a story or two to tell about each of them. After more than 20 years out of the Air Force, he still kept in touch with those Airmen. Frankly, his stories and my excitement about wanting to be part of an organization like that were the main reasons I enlisted in the Air Force a few months after graduating from high school.
I entered the Air Force during an era before computers and cell phones. I knew everyone in the office and nearly everything about them. It was natural. To get something done, you walked to their desk or developed a relationship with them on the phone. I knew just by the sound of their voice or the way they walked into the office what kind of day they were having. I didn’t have to rely on them to post their status on Facebook to understand how they were feeling. Of course, Facebook was still 20 years away.
In today’s digital age, times have certainly changed. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a cyber guy and a huge proponent of technology so I’m excited to see where we’re headed in the future. However, the one area that we’ve sacrificed is personal relationships and the ability to “read” our fellow Airmen. How many times have you sent an e-mail or text to the Airman sitting in your own office? How well do you know your co-workers, your boss and your subordinates? Do you know where they’re from? Do you know what they do off-duty?
As a young squadron commander in England, I had to pick up the pieces of a devastated unit after a bright, young senior airman took her own life. She was popular, outgoing and an impressive Airman, having won the squadron Airman of the quarter award earlier that year. After her death, we learned how much stress she had in her life and how many signs were out there if people would have just known her better. No one wanted to ask because they didn’t want to “get into her business.” Of course after her death, they all wished they would have.
Tragically, our Air Force is barreling down a path to set a record for suicides in 2012. The previous record for suicides was set in 2010 when 99 fellow Airmen took their own life. We are well on our way to smash that record this year. In most of these cases, the signs were there but no one was watching for them. How many of our wingmen are deployed, have moved or worked a different shift schedule? If Wingmen aren’t watching out for each other, who is? If you don’t know much about your co-workers, how will you recognize abnormal behavior from normal? It’s incumbent upon each one of us to get to know our fellow Airmen. Step out from behind your desk, walk to the next desk and just ask a few questions about their life. Sure, it might be a little invasive, but it also may reveal the struggles they’re facing.
Twenty-five years from now, when you’re talking to your kids and grandkids about your Air Force life, what will you tell them? Let’s hope you go overboard and tell them about each person you worked with, how they were unique and how much you still stay in touch with them. Everyone has a story to tell, let’s hope you get out from behind your computer to hear them all. I look forward to hearing yours too.