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What if we could prevent the cycle?

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --

 I have worked for Tinker Air Force Base for nearly 30 years and I can honestly say my job as a Community Support Coordinator is the best position I have ever held. I have worked several jobs in the 72nd Air Base Wing that keeps planes landing and taking off safely, people communicating via the web or phone, ensuring base security and building safe structures but notably the “People Business.” I could have left for an Air Force Materiel Command position or even one that isn’t as difficult to manage, but I stayed. Why did I choose to do so? I stay because we are an integral part of “Taking Care of People.”

My heart of  “Taking Care of People” is one reason I am writing this commentary. The other reason is because when Col. Kenyon Bell assumed command as the 72nd Air Base Wing commander, he asked us to write down what we felt was important advice for him to remember in his new role. I began to reflect on what my advice would be and decided it wasn’t just for him but all leaders to hear. By leaders I don’t mean just commanders, directors, and supervisors, but each one of us. We are all some level of leader in our work centers.

We can be overwhelmed in our jobs, and when you add in unforeseen difficulties or changes that stop or hinder normal operations, frustrations can certainly rise easily. We may choose to take leave to avoid the situation, not work at all until things change, “figure out” a way to work in spite of the circumstances or “fix” the situation for the good of all. Other times we may jump in to help ease the stress of our fellow co-workers despite our own work being left undone and just endure “catching up” afterwards. 

These frustrating, difficult moments can define the morale of our organization more than when things are going right. What happens when those who rise to the occasion to help others are not given a thank you or their leaders don’t check on them? For most, especially if they don’t need the affirmation or already get support from their family or friends, maybe nothing. These good wingmen may be disappointed in their co-workers, supervisors or commanders, but life will move on. But what about those who did need that “Thank You” to give them a sense of belonging or a belief they contribute to something higher than themselves?

A 2012 Centers for Disease Control study showed 80 percent of those who commit suicide had a mental illness and the most common illness is depression. What if we could prevent the cycle by starting at the root cause and build protective factors throughout our community? We could build a culture where everyone feels they are a part of the team and their work is of value to the base and Air Force, a place where everyone knows each other well and we show gratitude as part of our everyday communication. These acts create the protective factors needed to make our community resilient.

So, if I were to give some upfront advice to all leaders on how to “Take Care of People” what would it be? No. 1, show people you care. This statement caused me to return to a time that I felt the most sense of belonging to Tinker, my wing and a value to the Air Force. The biggest compliment I ever received was by now-retired Lt. Gen. Bruce Litchfield, who was talking about me to Gen. Mark Welsh, the 20th Chief of Staff of the Air Force. General Litchfield said, “Let me tell you Karen’s MO.”

In a summarized version; she is preventive in nature in everything she does. She sees things in a different way and works to prevent the bad things from happening. It was the single most rewarding experience of my career not because the person was speaking of me or who he was speaking to. It was because this man who had limited interaction with me understood more about my purpose in life and how I fit into the mission of the installation. The same day hearing a heartfelt genuine, “Thank you for taking care of my Airmen,” from General Welsh was the topping to a perfect professional moment and a sense of connection to something so much bigger than me.

I will finish with more specific advice to supervisors and leadership. Look for those small moments you can say “thank you” to the ones who aren’t always in front of you for an award or recognition. Look around your immediate areas and take the time for a few moments of conversation with everyone. Seek information on Tinker’s Helping Agencies and encourage the use of the prevention and treatment programs to those under your influence if they need it. That is the heart of “Taking Care of People.”

For more information on Tinker’s Helping Agencies and Programs, look for the Helping Agencies icon on your desktop or visit http://www.tinker.af.mil/About-Us/Tinker-Helps/