Committed to caring: Who's your wingman?

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
  • Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
The word "wingman" has long been a part of the Air Force culture. Its definition today varies but the traditional meaning, dating back nearly 100 years, is about "a pilot whose aircraft is positioned behind and outside the leading aircraft in a formation."

In 2011 in the Air Force, being a "wingman" is about more than flying aircraft in a formation.  It's a way of life.  In Air Force Instruction 36-2618, The Enlisted Force Structure, it even states to Airmen they must "know and understand the wingman concept."

The concept, the instruction states, is about Airmen who take care of other fellow Airmen. "Being a good wingman means you share a bond with other Airmen. You can be counted on to support each other, in all situations, both on- and off-duty."

In Air Mobility Command, the wingman concept is further defined as being a part of the Comprehensive Airman Fitness culture, according to a December 2010 talking paper on CAF.

"It reflects the essence of what we expect in strong wingmen," the talking paper states to explain why CAF and being a wingman is important. "These wingmen are men and women who are not afraid to stand for what they believe and fight to keep each other safe from harm. Individuals will find strength in seeking help when they struggle and have compassion for others during difficult times. It creates the conditions necessary for individual and organizational resilience to take root."

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Roy said in a September 2010 speech to the Air Force Association Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition at the National Harbor at Oxon Hill, Md., that being a wingman isn't about one Airman looking after just one other Airman. It's about "all Airmen" looking after each other.

The speech, entitled, "The Enlisted Perspective," also reflected how Airmen, as wingmen, can use the building blocks of resiliency as well as the CAF culture to build more resilient Airmen. CAF is built on four pillars of fitness -- mental, social, physical and spiritual -- and five "Cs" -- care, commit, connect, communicate and celebrate.

Building resilient Airmen, Chief Roy said, "cannot be just another program."

"It's got to be heartfelt," he said in the speech. "We've got to make sure our Airmen are given those (resiliency) tools before they need them. It's not before they deploy, it's right out of the shoot. It's right in basic training. It's in tech school. It's all the way through a person's career. We've got to continue to instill resiliency within our Airmen and families."

Lt. Col. Chuck Henderson, from the 305th Operations Group at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., may have said it best stating in a December 2010 commentary that "anyone and everyone in the Air Force are your wingmen, and you, theirs."

Colonel Henderson also noted in his story, "Since former (Chief of Staff of the Air Force) Gen. (John P.) Jumper decreed in 2004 Airman would be spelled with a capital 'A,' we have understood there is a common bond that unites all Airmen ... now is the time to capitalize on the wingman culture we have instilled in our ranks."

In the process of looking out for each other, there is no document that defines how to do it. In his commentary, "A way out: My journey from the brink of suicide," in February 2011, Maj. Kerry Gladden, from the Air Force Network Integration Center at Scott AFB, credited his wingmen for saving him.

He said all Airmen "have to embrace the wingman culture," and can be called upon anytime, anywhere. It's also important to know what's going on with those around you.

"A wingman is not a name and phone number on the back of a card," Major Gladden wrote. "It is someone you know well enough to see when something is wrong, or know enough about their life and struggles to take them aside and offer to talk. If our relationship only exists Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., I'm not going to share my deepest darkest secrets with you."

The important thing to remember, officials say, is that being a good wingman is more than a philosophy or any program.  It's a way of life.  And in achieving that way of life and resiliency, the Comprehensive Airman Fitness culture also can thrive.

"The end state is a visibly stronger, more cohesive network of Airmen, families and civilians," the CAF talking paper states. "A culture of people who care for each other, offer support when necessary and have the courage to seek help when they need it. An Air Force community that works together, struggles together and plays together for the good of all its members."

(Maj. Kerry Gladden, Air Force Network Integration Center, contributed to this feature report.)