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Human performance team helps RPA Airmen combat stress

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNS) -- As the persistent demand for remotely piloted aircraft support increases, the burden on the Airmen who fly, maintain and support these operations also increases, often leaving some people to question their abilities to continue in this stressful job.

The disciplined warfighters dominate the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and kinetic operations globally, 24/7, for the U.S. and its coalition partners. It is a daunting and sometimes stressful task, but fortunately, those closest to the fight recognize the need to take care of their most valuable asset: the Airmen.

"Every single day, this base is at war," said Col. James Cluff, the 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing commander. "What we do here isn't autonomous. It starts with the people, and the people are the heart of it. The manpower it takes to operate this enterprise is at the heart of this system and we must do what we can to protect them."

Normally reserved for special operations commands, human performance teams focus on helping Airmen win today's fight while they prepare for tomorrow through physical, social, spiritual, intellectual and emotional support.

Considering the demands facing the RPA enterprise, Creech Air Force Base has formed its own human performance team to meet the needs of those supporting RPA operations at this one-of-a-kind, deployed-in-place location.

"Our vision with this program is to shape the future of airpower," said Chaplain (Maj.) Mark Williams, a member of the human performance team. "Through motivated, innovative and trained warriors we can deliberately develop and take care of our Airmen."

The team consists of an operational physiologist, an operational psychologist, operational medicine and the chaplain corps, who together treat the five areas of wellness for all Creech AFB Airmen.

Due to the sensitive nature of the Creech AFB mission, the human performance team is cleared to the top secret and sensitive information levels to allow them access to Airmen's work centers. This way, they’re allowed greater day-to-day availability to help those in need.

"Having access to the Airmen in their units allows us to break down the stigmas associated with getting help," said Williams. "Whereas, before we were seen as outsiders, we are now viewed as part of the team since we can observe what they experience firsthand."

In a 2012 RPA survey, Air Combat Command Airmen rated their top five contributors affecting stress and morale as unit manning, shift schedules, extra duties and administrative tasks, working long hours and having sleep issues.

Armed with this information, the Creech AFB human performance team tailored training to give Airmen the tools needed to remain resilient against those factors.

The wing operational physiologist, Maj. Maria Gomez-Mejia, works to fill the nontraditional aspects unique to Creech AFB through educational training aimed at fatigue mitigation, performance enhancement, risk management analysis and observations, and RPA specific human factor threats.

"Most of our Airmen here at Creech spend long periods of time sitting between flying and the drive to and from work in addition to the shift work, so it's vital that we target the physical aspects of this job," Gomez-Mejia said. "The partnership of the program is essential."

Annually the team collects 9,000 standardized aviation risk management reports from crewmembers who receive personal stressor scores from the operational physiologist, psychologist or the chaplain as needed.

In addition, the psychological aspects are also addressed to optimize performance, improve organizational climate, unit moral, team dynamics, operational readiness and combat effectiveness.

"Among ACC RPA Airmen, we are focused on energy management, goal setting, improving home relationships, mental resilience and work relationships," said Maj. Eddie, the wing operational psychologist.

If a problem persists and cannot be treated through nonmedical avenues, Airmen can partner with flight medicine.

"We like to remind the Airmen that seeking help is a sign of strength and it is not detrimental to their career," said Lt. Col. James Senechal, a 99th Aerospace Medicine Squadron flight doctor. "We are committed to solving the problem and getting Airmen back in the seat."

The human performance team is focused on getting Airmen to the right expertise for their issues, which occasionally requires multiple aspects of the team at once to treat the five areas of wellness.

"A hundred feet from our door, our Airmen are at war," Williams said. "We must do everything we can to keep our Airmen and their families healthy."

Within the unique group, treating the source of the problem is a huge part of the team’s mission and families are strongly encouraged to seek help along with their Airmen.

"Sometimes its nutritional help an Airman is seeking and throughout the conversation we discover they have an issue sleeping which makes them irritable and thus affects the family dynamic," Gomez-Meija said. "So we educate both the Airman and the spouse on ways to cope with the changes in mission and schedules."

For Airmen who have been helped by the program, its impact is immeasurable and speaks volumes for the amount of caring the wing leadership has for its Airmen's well-being.

"I think that in this aspect, the Air Force is doing something right," said Col. Brent Caldwell, the 726th Operations Group commander. "We didn't wait for this to become an acute issue before we started treating it; we're attacking it head-on."

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