24 SOW strengthens force through resiliency programs

  • Published
  • By Raquel Sanchez
  • Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs
Special Tactics Airmen have held the forefront of combat operations for more than a decade, undertaking the most dangerous missions. These mission-ready operators are the first ones there. They cannot be mass produced and are in great demand.

The U.S. Special Operations Command's Preservation of the Force and Families initiative supports the special operations force's truth that humans are more important than hardware. It provides resources targeted on physical, mental and spiritual aspects of resiliency for Airmen and their families.

Their motto, "First There ... That Others May Live," is a testament to the commitment of a Special Tactics Airman. These battlefield Airmen face multiple deployments and intensive training schedules that impact them and their families.

The 24th Special Operations Wing has led the way to ensure ST Airmen and their families have the resources available to them to deal with the stressors of a demanding operations tempo.

The 24th SOW is the third and newest wing in Air Force Special Operations Command, and the only one comprised of ST Airmen that include officers, combat controllers, pararescuemen, special operations weathermen, tactical air control party operators and specialized combat support Airmen from 58 Air Force specialties.

Their mission is to provide ST forces for rapid global employment to enable airpower success. Special Tactics Airmen are often the first to deploy into crisis situations because of their exceptional capabilities. These include airfield reconnaissance, assessment, and control. They also engage in joint terminal attack control, personnel recovery, and environmental reconnaissance.

"It's a mission that we have to sustain," said Col. Robert Armfield, 24th SOW commander. "We have a generation of people who have 10, 12, 14 rotations of doing this."

"The cumulative effect of this type of lifestyle can cause psychological and physical trauma, and we have to continue to take this highly trained force and employ it on the next 10 rotations," Armfield said. "So how do you do it, how do you invest your resources to take care of your force and their families?"

The 24th SOW is taking care of their force and families through resiliency programs, resources and counseling. Leadership at the wing identified the need for specialized care for their force then assigned caregivers to their units to provide continuity of care and immediate one-on-one treatment to ST Airmen and their families.

The physical requirements of an ST Airman are demanding. No day is the same, and Airmen must be willing to test their physical and mental abilities to get the job done. ST Airmen are trained in parachuting, scuba diving, rappelling, skiing, motorcycling, survival skills and much more.

"The nature of the job is that they take risks," said Lt. Col. Chetan Kharod, the 24th SOW surgeon general. "We study what the most likely types of injury are during training, during deployment and off-duty to come up with prevention measures.

"Physical fitness covers exercise, nutrition, and overall health of the mind and body. Each unit has their own fitness operations with an athletic trainer and strength coach who shapes the building of an ST Airman," Kharod said. "They also have a physical therapist that knows them and who can treat their injuries to ensure an effective recovery."

The 24th SOW hopes to improve their return to duty rates by having caregivers on site who can help identify risks early on and who can provide treatment to get Airmen back to daily life and operational capability.

The wing is also one of the first to embed a psychologist and chaplain into each of their deploying units.

"We are identifying issues very early during the deployment and building rapport with the operators so they feel more comfortable talking about them when they get back," said Lt. Col. James Young, the 24th SOW chief of psychological applications. "This allows us to connect them with resources and provide treatment almost immediately.

"In the past there was sometimes a stigma attached to those who asked for help, and many would continue to struggle and never seek the care they needed. Embedding psychologists into the units has made it easier for Airmen to ask for help," Young said.

"For every deployment rotation that I've done, there have been four to five guys who have sought follow-up care just based off the conversation we had while deployed," Young said.

Chaplains also deploy alongside psychologists to provide counseling to ST Airmen and their families before, during and after a deployment.

"When not on the battlefield with our prizefighters, our main focus is to take care of our families," said Maj. Jason Botts, 24th SOW chaplain.

Family members are just as invested in the mission as the service member, and they are affected by the lifestyle of a career ST Airman. To help care for the needs of their families, the wing has off base resiliency retreats. Each squadron has two per deployment cycle: one mid deployment for spouses and one post deployment for the entire squadron. Retreats provide a setting that encourages interaction, information sharing and access to caregivers.

A psychologist, chaplain, military family life consultant, and doctor are present to educate and consult with members and their families. A psychologist begins the retreat by providing training on stress physiology followed by the chaplain who teaches spiritual resiliency. Both seminars help attendees thoroughly understand the various stressors associated with ST deployments and provide tools for effectively managing the associated stress with the latest psychological techniques and spiritual formation practices.

These resiliency based retreats have proven to have an impact on our Airmen and their families, Botts said.

"We continually receive feedback from spouses that say, 'We've never had anything like this before; now I understand my husband and can more effectively reintegrate my life with his upon returning home.'"

The military family life consultant teaches the latest relational resiliency strategies for adults and recently began a program to help children cope with the continual ST deployment cycle.

"There's not a universal formula for resiliency," Botts said. "However, I do know one truth about keeping people poised under pressure which we try to take advantage of via the retreat paradigm," Botts said.

"The likelihood of bouncing back is much greater when we look out for each other, helping one another bear the stress that comes with ST deployments whether on the objective or at the diaper changing table," Botts said. "So, along with getting high quality training, our retreats provide strategic down time for attendees to build stronger friendships with each other."

The 24th SOW plans to continue to strengthen their force through the POTFF initiative adding personnel and facilities to take care of the Airmen and their families. AFSOC will build its first Resiliency Operations center at Hurlburt Field with a groundbreaking expected in fiscal 2014. The center will provide streamlined deployment processing, integrated physical and mental health care. It will also provide top-tier training for ST Airmen, aviators and medical specialists.

"We hope the results of what we're doing for the 24th SOW will help influence the future of how the Air Force and how special operators across the services train and take care of their people," Armfield said.

The POTFF initiative has been a key component to help enhance mission readiness of the 24th SOW.

"When people join Special Tactics their lives are on the line every day. Since 9/11 we've lost 17 members and have had more than 100 critically injured," Armfield said. "What we're asking them to do is pretty incredible. We owe them the most we can do; to take care of them, to make them ready to be successful in combat, and to take care of the families that we're asking to give so much to us."