Ft Meade --
By her own account, Staff Sgt. Shalese Tonks (31st Intelligence Squadron, NCOIC, Joint Operations) is an open book. Like most people, she has a history. But the difference between Tonks and many of her fellow Airmen is that she is prepared to put it all out there, if it will help another one of her fellow Wingmen.
“When I say I’m an empath, I’m taking that to a pretty extreme degree,” said Tonks. “I’ve had people who have come up to me describing things that I have never in my life felt, and I’ve still been able to understand to some degree what they’re feeling.”
Tonks’ ability to instantly connect with people who are troubled or going through difficult times draws upon her own personal life experience. She said members of her family struggled with mental illness. Some were emotionally abusive and narcissistic. One of her aunts, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, stole a car then drove it over the state line before turning herself in for grand theft auto. Tonks admits to suffering from generalized anxiety, and her husband was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder while they were living in London. Her life is not only an open book, it’s a page turner.
“We’ve done a lot of introspection, especially after we found out that my husband had OCD,” she said. “We did a lot of – what does that mean for us, what does that mean for you, what does that mean for me – and because I’ve done so much of that, I feel like I can help a lot of people who are going through something they don’t know how to put into words.”
Tonks realized how great the need was for a program like Wingmen Connect when she was put to the test with an overseas detachment that included just 13 other Airmen, the majority of whom she felt were actively working against her. There was one Wingman, though, who made a huge impression on her and her career.
“Instead of feeling like I had people who were there for me,” Tonks said, “I had one person, who he and his family were always there for me and I’m so grateful every day for them. Because if I didn’t have them, I don’t know where I would be right now. I probably would not be in the military.”
Tonks said when she got back to the United States, she was still frustrated by the experience. However, it was that experience that ultimately led to Wingmen Connect.
“I was so upset that had happened that I said I’m not going to be part of the problem, I’m going to try and fix it,” she said.
So, Tonks started talking to her Air Force friends about her experience and found, to her surprise, her story was not unique. She said she heard the same kinds of struggles being expressed by people she knew and respected.
“And [I] realized, this isn’t just a problem from my perspective, this is an Air Force problem,” Tonks said. “I think the solution is just people talking about it, people trying to be there for each other, being just decent human beings and being Wingmen like we all say we are. Let’s actually do that.”
Those conversations eventually led to a pitch to her 1st Sergeant and she said Wingmen Connect just took off from there. A year and a half later, there are now 70 Airmen who have volunteered for the program. The day-long training includes learning about all the various support systems at their local bases and how to help other service members connect with the right resources. But perhaps more importantly, all are prepared to offer their own personal history as living proof that asking for help provides a source of strength.
“The second half of the day, they do Storytellers,” said Tonks. “This is where Airmen are sharing their own personal accounts of what they have been through and how they got through it. And how they used whatever tools they had, or what they wish they would have known when they started going through this.”
Storytellers are quite frank about their problems, talking about issues that most people rarely address in a public forum. They may talk about troubles in their relationships or financial problems that have been taking a toll on their families, or they may even talk about a time when they contemplated self-harm. The Airmen also open up the storytelling forum to answer questions from other Airmen, seizing an opportunity to point their fellow Wingmen to the right resources.
The tools needed to maneuver through difficult emotional terrain may not always be apparent to those that need them. But even when service members know about the professional resources available at their base, they are sometimes reluctant to ask for help for fear of retribution or professional damage. Tonks said that’s where Wingmen Connect can truly help save careers and lives. She believes the first step in dealing with problems is being able to talk about it.
Tonks said she and others are trying to reduce the stigma associated with seeking help through their own actions. “All of these people who are saying I go to behavioral health every other week, or I go to behavioral health three times a week, or I am on various medications, and I’m still serving.”
Tonks emphasizes the Air Force isn’t in the business to get rid of people. Otherwise, she said, how would they exist? She said the Air Force has a responsibility to make sure all Airmen get the care they need. Upholding that responsibility at every base is a network of providers to ensure the resiliency of Airmen and their families, including mental and behavioral health workers, physical therapists and religious support teams.
“And the longer you put off talking about these things,” she said. “The harder you make it for the Air Force to care for us and keep us.”
Wingmen Connect started as an idea just two years ago at Ft. Meade, Maryland. Tonks, though, is confident it will become part of the Command Team’s Best Practices at a number of other installations soon. She already has other Airmen prepared to start the program at air bases in Texas and Alaska, and possibly Korea. The program is informal and has spread mostly through word of mouth through leaders such as herself, or by other Airman who have been helped by Wingmen Connect. It also costs nothing to implement.
“Wingmen Connect works,” said Tonks. “Because other people believe in being a Wingman and being there for one another, and putting themselves out there to try to help somebody.”
The Air Force Resilience Office supports Major Commands, their Wings and subordinate formations to foster and promote resilience among Airmen and their families, optimize performance and decrease negative outcomes, while building a more lethal force of the U.S. Air Force. For more information visit https://www.resilience.af.mil.