Posted by Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Mazzone, 6th Air Mobility Command Chief
MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — In the 1990’s it was not uncommon for an Airman to hear the phrase “Suck it up!” It was also rare to find the supervisor who would encourage Airmen to seek help to work through mental health concerns. It seemed the Senior Noncommissioned Officers were worried more about maintaining the appearance of a strong and ready force. Unbeknownst to them, they were raising Airmen who would be exactly what they wanted: hard core NCOs who were afraid to show emotion, and even worse, afraid to get help. We have the opportunity to break the cycle. Are you up for the challenge?
In 2004, a technical sergeant found himself sitting in a corner of a darkened room in the back of his house, sobbing. He was alone, and his life had just fallen out from under his feet. For more than 30 hours he sat there, cried there and slept there. He didn’t eat and he didn’t drink. He simply stared at the emptiness in front of him, wondering how this had happened. How had his life gone from seemingly normal to quiet chaos in less than a day? He didn’t know how to ask for help.
He was in no condition to dissect his situation, as he lacked rational thought and had just sustained fresh, deep emotional wounds. Sitting in that corner, he challenged his faith; asking how his God could allow something so wicked to occur. He challenged himself, wondering if he didn’t do enough to keep this from happening. The phone rang as he sat there. He thought about unplugging it, but it was too far away. He wondered about “making the pain go away,” but instead he rolled over to fall asleep yet again. This time he awoke to the sound of his name being yelled in his own house. He never cried out “I’m back here, please help me!”
When they found him, he was a wreck. His legs were weak and he didn’t want to move. He just wanted his life back…he wanted his family back. He wanted things to be the way they were before, even though he knew that was not possible. One person walked him to the living room couch. Another got him some water. They sat there in silence with him, waiting patiently, hoping he would say something. He was ashamed and didn’t speak. He couldn’t stomach the thought of people knowing about this, even if they were his friends. He felt they wouldn’t be able to do anything for him, and he never asked them to find someone who could help.
One of them contacted the first sergeant, who arrived soon after. Together, they started doing things for him…simple things. They turned on the shower, they got him clean clothes, they made him a bowl of cereal and they drove him to see his commander. He sat in the office; his commander making the time to listen to nothing being said, only the sobs of a broken man. Finally, he was asked if he would like to see a chaplain or someone from mental health.
I said “no”, because I was scared and because that’s the way I was raised in the Air Force. I was taught that seeking help was a sign of weakness, that it hurt careers and it could negatively impact the mission. My commander didn’t force me. Instead he made a deal with me. He made me promise to answer the door no matter what time there was a knock, and to answer the phone at any hour. He pulled me from the flight schedule to ensure my personal safety and the safety of my fellow crewmates. He knew my passion for history and instructed me to begin a research project for the unit. All the while, he reminded me constantly of my options to speak with someone, and that it was a path back to wellness. After weeks of not smiling and busy work meant to keep my mind occupied, I finally told someone I was ready to talk.
There was no pause. I was immediately driven the 15 miles to our supporting hospital, and met with someone who wanted only to learn about what happened to make me go through the pain I felt. She gained my trust, assuring me that these steps to heal myself were courageous. It took time, but I worked through it. It took friends who legitimately cared about me, and did whatever was needed. It took a command team to let me know it was okay to expose my wounds, since that was the only way to heal them. It took more time, but I was finally back in the air, doing what I loved, safely. It took a lot of people doing a lot of things at just the right time to make sure I was cared for. They never let me feel as though I was on my own. It also took a patient and loving God to wait for me to come back, and to show me there is a purpose for everything.
Since then, I’ve tried hard to crush the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues by being an example of a compassionate leader. But it wasn’t until recently that I decided the best example I could use was my own. I intend to continue spreading the message that it’s okay to ask for help. After mustering the courage to seek the assistance others wanted for me, I took to the path. It led me on a journey of self-discovery and helped to rebuild my confidence. In the aftermath, I continued to earn positions of responsibility, and maintained my high level security clearance. I was screened and designated to work for a special mission unit, promoted to chief master sergeant, and eventually selected to be a command chief.
The previous paragraph is not boastful pride. It’s meant to encourage those who may be sitting in a similar dark corner, with what appears to be no place to go. I promise you there is a safe place, and I challenge you to ask for help. If I can crawl from my own hell with the help of others, I know you can too. I also have a message for the “dinosaurs” that remain entrenched in the belief that asking for help is weak: You’re keeping your Airmen from reaching their full potential. That is exactly the opposite of what good leaders do. We should be inspiring our Airmen, and conditioning them to seek whatever help they need in order to succeed personally and professionally. Healthy Airmen accomplish the mission efficiently, and with pride.
There are so many men and women with whom we serve who have made a leap of faith and found fulfillment on the other side. All it takes is the courage to ask for help.