USAF Office of Resilience April 8, 2019
When a 29-year-old Senior Airman failed to show up for work, a friend and fellow Airman found him dead from a gunshot in his apartment not far from base. The Office of Special Investigations later ruled it self-inflicted. While any death is painful to family, friends and co-workers of the deceased, a death by suicide is especially tragic; not only for the victim’s family, but for the Wingmen of a close-knit squadron in sometimes remote locations.
Task Force True North’s charter was created two years ago to beta-test initiatives that help prevent tragedies like this by addressing Comprehensive Airman Fitness. The beta test became a reality in July 2018.
“Our Airmen and their families experience a host of unique challenges. When they face adversity and do not seek help, they increase risk to themselves, potentially others, and degrade mission readiness, thus degrading Air Force lethality,” said Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, Gen. Stephen W. Wilson.
“It is imperative we not only support them in the face of adversity, but we continue to foster a culture of community, resilience, health and prevention that transcends into everyday life. The Task Force will provide the Secretary of the Air Force, the Air Force Chief of Staff and myself valuable feedback so we can make the best decision on the future support for our Air Force.”
In the above situation, the embedded Task Force True North providers, which include mental health counselors and a Religious Support Team, will step in to work with the installation’s Disaster Mental Health Team to guide the Wingmen through the death of a teammate who died by suicide. The Task Force providers know the Airmen intimately. They’ve built relationships and trust among the unit by being embedded with the squadron for much of the past year. They know the friends of the deceased and how this death may affect individual members of the Wing. Task Force members will now use this knowledge to reach out to those most at risk in the aftermath of the Airman’s death. This postvention phase of Task Force True North is aimed at preventing other deaths while sustaining the unit’s mission-readiness.
Task Force True North is currently in beta-test at four bases – Minot, Beale and Whiteman Air Force Bases and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The Vice Chief of Staff promoted the effort in December 2016 to boost Airmen and their families’ well-being and optimize Airman performance while decreasing negative outcomes (like sexual assault, suicide, domestic and workplace violence), thereby increasing mission readiness. The program has been in existence less than a year, so the beta-test sites are still collecting data and feedback on its effectiveness. Leadership feedback, however, indicates the program is having a positive impact on Airmen morale and resilience by bringing helping resources closer to where their Airmen are, because proximity and familiarity matter.
A First Sergeant with the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Whiteman Air Base calls it a blessing that her unit has an embedded Task Force True North provider. Recently a note was discovered in the women’s bathroom that indicated someone was in distress. The anonymous writer said she had no friends and hated her life. So, Senior Master Sgt. Erreca Berry said they made contact with every woman in the Squadron in an attempt to find the distressed Airman.
“We decided that we would go to each roll call with our Task Force True North Chaplain and embedded mental health provider,” Berry said.
“We all came together and we made a 100% contact in that aspect as well. Not only with the females but also with every male on flight to explain that there was someone out there that needed help. Everybody stepped up, and opened their doors, and told everybody to come through.”
Berry said she was impressed with what she called a whole team effort among the Airmen and Task Force True North. The Airman who left the note is still unknown to Berry. If someone did come forward to the Religious Support Team, though, the meeting would have been confidential.
Task Force True North provides Squadron leadership with better tools for risk and protective analysis among Airmen by using a bi-annual survey to identify those who are victims of domestic partner emotional abuse or are exhibiting negative behaviors such as suicidality or alcohol misuse. If an issue arises, Squadron Commanders are able to consult with NYU mental health experts who advise them on “light touch” prevention tools that can be shared with Airmen without identifying the source or sources of the problem. For example, Commanders may share certain phone apps that deal with alcohol misuse with the entire Squadron if they learn of unhealthy alcohol habits among some of the Airmen.
Squadron and Group Commanders have credited Task Force True North with saving the lives of unit members who are dealing with a tragedy in the ranks. A number of commanders say they would like even more mental health and Religious Support Team resources in order to increase the opportunities for their Airmen to engage.
Statistically, from September through December of 2018, across all 12 beta test Maintenance and Mission Support groups, there were between 300-600 individual engagements with the mental health team per month, which translates up to 385 hours of counseling per month. The Religious Support Teams, during the same period, had up to 270 individual engagements each month.
Mental, physical and spiritual resources are currently available to all Airmen, but the Task Force program aims to decentralize the resources, bringing them closer to where Airmen serve. Air Force Senior Leaders are encouraged enough by these early results to direct the staff to build a plan to expand the Task Force effort beginning in 2021, ensuring Airmen have easier access to the services they need to become more resilient, mission-ready and lethal.
The mission of the Air Force Resilience Office is to foster and promote resilience of Airmen and their families, helping them 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.