AETC leaders learn from Airmen who celebrate life

  • Published
  • By Capt. Beau Downey
  • Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs
Twenty-two Airmen, most from Air Education and Training Command and several from around the Air Force, presented their stories of resiliency and their ideas about how to celebrate life at AETC’s annual Senior Leaders' Conference at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Oct. 19, 2017.

Between stories of hardship and triumph, the Airmen recounted the week they spent together exploring each other's life experiences and the effectiveness of current resiliency programs in the Air Force. They provided senior leaders with their thoughts and recommendations, and the message was clear: Airmen want to connect on a human level.

"What is the human factor?" asked Staff Sgt. Traylin Cleveland, 82nd Aerospace Medicine Squadron, who was one of the Airmen presenting to the group. "You have to go out there and talk to your Airman. You have to know what drives them. You can’t develop your Airman if you don’t know your Airman."

Col. Richard Tatem, Profession of Arms Center of Excellence Reserve advisor, echoed this sentiment when addressing the discussion groups.

“People want connection before direction,” Tatem said. “You cannot expect to lead your Airmen if you don’t know them on a personal level.”

The presentations were the culmination of several days of discussions during the conference in which Airmen were divided into three groups and asked to get to know one another by sharing their stories and drawing from one another's experiences.

"What I got out of this experience is that there are other people who know my story and who have felt my story," said Staff Sgt. Dominika Thomas, 381st Training Group. "The benefit of this was to let me know that I'm not alone. There are people who really know what you are going through."

Guided by group facilitators, the Airmen synthesized their discussions into actionable points, and the discussion had as much of an impact on the facilitators as it did on the participants themselves.

"It was learning how to foster an environment where they could trust themselves," said 2nd Lt. Melissa Castro, Profession of Arms Center of Excellence program coordinator. "They let me come in as a complete stranger and an officer, and they told some of the most intimate details of their lives, so I learned a lot about the needs that they have and what they are dealing with."

Celebrate Life is an idea that began in 2016 and has been a collaborative effort between AETC's judge advocate, chaplain, public affairs, surgeon general's offices, and PACE.

“We wanted to reach out to our Airmen to listen and learn from them on how they live a resilient life each and every day through the peaks and valleys of life,” said Chaplain (Col.) Douglas Slater, AETC command chaplain. “We sought answers to the question, ‘How do they celebrate life today?’”

"The intent of this was to try to go to the grassroots level and get to our young Airmen on a daily basis across our Air Force to talk to them about resiliency and to get their recommendations," said Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, AETC commander.

For some, this meant giving context to the conversations that took place over the preceding days by telling a personal story of overcoming hardship. Senior Airman June Bell, 47th Medical Group, was one of the presenters who shared her experience at the conference.

Amid an emotional room, Bell told her story of overcoming issues with self-worth and an abusive relationship that resulted in a miscarriage, noting how the effects of these situations follow her to this day.

"I knew there was more to June than what I was going through," Bell said. "I was tired--I was so tired. Tired of fighting, tired of getting beaten up, tired of looking for love, tired of not getting the love that I needed, tired of trying to be better but just not having a way out."

In the end, Bell's story—only one of several personal stories shared—had an impact on the audience with its message of resiliency.

"When I made it to my base, it was my leadership who pulled me aside, and I told him who I was," Bell said. "And it was OK to be June. I didn't have to worry about just being Airman Bell—my commander wanted to get to know who June was, and he celebrated my life and showed me that I was important."

The groups cited programs such as Green Dot and the First Term Airman's Course as having a positive impact on Airmen, but asked senior leaders in attendance for their help reaching Airmen.

"What we need is for leaders to demand from their officers, senior [noncommissioned officers] and NCOs, all the way down to Airmen, is to develop being a human," said Airman 1st Class Christopher Young, 703rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. “If you get to know us and develop that sense of trust, we’ll move mountains for you. We’ll be the kind of Airmen where nothing can stop us.”

The hope is that the grassroots-style approach to Celebrate Life will be something the Airmen take back to their bases to ignite a conversation across AETC about what resiliency looks like on a personal level.

“After they are done with this week, these Airmen are going to go back to your wings to continue this effort on how we celebrate life,” Roberson said to AETC commanders. “Our theme this week is compassionate care of Airmen and their families. I can’t wait to see the impact this is going to have, because the human factor really is key.”