The Air Force is encouraging senior leaders to be forthcoming with their own personal stories to connect with airmen and ensure the discussion continues, following the recent stand-down implemented to focus on mental health amid a dramatic increase in suicides.
“Us, as leaders, need to open up and show our brokenness,” said CMSgt. Terrence Greene, the command chief master sergeant for Air Mobility Command, in a recent interview. “We’re not perfect, we’re going through challenges in our lives.”
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein in late July ordered a one-day “resilience tactical pause” to address the issue of suicide across the Air Force, which he said was an “adversary that is killing more of our airmen than any enemy on the planet.”
As wings across the service paused operations for a day to discuss suicide, Goldfein said some were more effective than others. In a recent interview with Air Force Magazine, he said the most effective discussions stemmed from commanders being proactive and opening up about their personal stories.
“There’s a power of senior leaders actually telling their story,” Goldfein said, adding it humanizes the commanders, and it dispels the myth that leaders “don’t deal with this issue at all.”
“I hear a lot of stories of commanders, command chiefs, senior NCOs, senior leaders who actually showed some vulnerability and shared things they are dealing with. It opened up dialogue.”
Greene is using his story to try to connect with his airmen. At the 2019 Airlift/Tanker Conference in late October in Orlando, he said in a speech that airmen need to “lead from the neck up,” and they should “inspire, and motivate, and encourage, and excite people. The only way to do that is to have a personal conversation, create an environment where people feel comfortable.”
When Greene was young, his mother committed suicide, and he and his siblings faced abuse. When he joined the Air Force, he thought, “Holy crap, I found a family. I found this thing that I wanted.” But, he said he focused so much on work, he neglected his own family.
Greene, like a lot of young airmen today, came “in with scars” that can lead to thoughts of suicide. While he’s “really excited some airmen are strong enough to fight against it, there were times when my own brain would take me down that road.”
The Air Force needs to work together to ensure all airmen can be strong and resilient in the face of these challenges. “We’ve got to get to know the person behind the uniform,” Greene said.