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Wingmen Connect initiative aims to create healthier, more resilient Airmen

Squadron commanders from the 22nd, 29th and 34th Intelligence Squadrons, conduct a commander’s panel with potential members of the Wingmen Connect Program July 18, 2018, at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland.

Squadron commanders from the 22nd, 29th and 34th Intelligence Squadrons, conduct a commanders panel with potential members of the Wingmen Connect Program July 18, 2018, at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. Wingmen Connect was formed to foster an Air Force culture where members are comfortable seeking and receiving assistance from supporting organizations and experienced Wingmen across all ranks for a healthier, more resilient Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. AJ Hyatt)

FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. -- About three and a half years ago, after an Airman realized her coworkers needed guidance she was unable to provide, she developed an idea.

Although the location of her assignment was great, her Air Force unit was difficult to function within.

“I was part of a really small detachment of only 14 people, and we were at least three hours away from any bases that had any real support organizations or Air Force resources,” said Staff Sgt. Shalese, 34th Intelligence Squadron cryptologic language analyst.

Shalese genuinely cared for her coworkers, but noticed she was reaching beyond her abilities while trying to fill gaps where she had very little experience.

It was upon her return from an overseas assignment that Shalese decided there had to be a better way. So she started talking with friends and trusted mentors.

“I found that many of them felt exactly like I did. We all were trying to take care of everyone else by ourselves, and we were all worn down emotionally,” she said.

The group of Airmen put their heads together searching for a solution, and Wingmen Connect was born.

Wingmen Connect was created to foster an Air Force culture where members can feel comfortable seeking and receiving help from supporting organizations and experienced wingmen across all ranks, creating a healthier, more resilient Air Force.

“We created Wingmen Connect as a way to make a network for those who feel the need to help and empathize with others, as well as give a place for those who don’t have anyone to reach out to when they need help,” she said.

Many Airmen in smaller units have gone through hardships in their lives. Through Wingmen Connect, those Airmen can volunteer to be mentors and share their experiences. They can also provide others with information about military family topics like emergency leave, services available from the American Red Cross, Military OneSource, the Exceptional Family Member Program, and many more.

Volunteers go through training and are vetted before being officially appointed by their squadron commanders to share their own personal experiences publicly, with people who are going through similar situations for the first time.

“Wingmen Connect, however, is not a substitute for the many existing programs and professional counselors postured to support service members,” Shalese said. “Wingmen Connect volunteers are not counselors or trusted agents. It’s not a way to circumvent your chain-of-command or squadron leadership.”

The program is currently in need of strong volunteer mentors who are ready to assist Airmen in need.

"We want members who are willing to share and know how to listen," said Lt. Col. Keith Wilson, 29th Intelligence Squadron commander. "Being real, raw and vulnerable, that's what you are offering.”

"During the initial training, volunteers are required to be on a stage and discuss their struggles, or just simple life or military issues," Shalese said.

“The purpose of this exercise is to make sure the volunteers are comfortable with speaking to individuals about concerns and to also receive feedback from the other volunteers and members,” Shalese said.

During training held July 18, 2018, Airmen shared their stories. One Airman shared what it was like to grow up in an abusive household, and another shared the experience of dealing with a loved one being diagnosed with cancer.

“All these stories show that you may not be the only one going through a specific issue,” Shalese said. “Wingmen Connect will point you in the right direction to talk to somebody who has been in your shoes before, if you would like.”

“You always hear about taking care of Airmen and their families,” said Lt. Col. Dan Newton, 22 IS commander. “This program is how to do that.

"People need to see how [Wingmen Connect] is working in our squadrons, groups, and wing,” Newton said. “Then, they will want to adopt it.”

Wingmen Connect recently caught the eye of various levels of senior leadership, Shalese said. She, along with Staff Sgt. Guillaume, 34 IS Master Resiliency Trainer and Comprehensive Airman Fitness representative, briefed Lt. Gen. Veralinn Jamieson, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C., about the program and received high praise, she said.

Currently, four squadrons in the 70th ISR Wing are running Wingmen Connect, 34 IS, 29 IS, 22 IS and 70th Operations Support Squadron, but the goal is to make the program Air Force-wide, Shalese said.

“We all have unique life experiences,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Beall, 34 IS commander. “This is a great tool to get Airmen the help that they need.”

For more information on how to set up a Wingmen Connect program, contact 34is.WingmenConnect@us.af.mil.


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