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Assessing your resilience: Control what you can, manage what you can’t

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --

As the 81st Training Wing inspector general a lot of my job is assessing unit programs and ensuring the unit is healthy and capable of accomplishing the mission. The expectation is that commanders and unit program managers are performing regular self-assessments and taking the appropriate actions to maintain the program. Our job in the IG is to validate the programs are mission ready through inspections. This system is effective and provides the wing commander a snapshot of how the wing is performing overall.

We all have programs in our personal lives that help us maintain our own personal missions and they may even match some of the programs we have in the Air Force such as housing maintenance, vehicle maintenance, budget and finance. We probably don’t think of these as programs and we likely never take a minute to assess how these personal programs are functioning. In August I took some time to assess my resiliency program and found that it was “marginally effective” and I was not fully mission capable because of it.

At the beginning of 2019, I was training for a half-marathon scheduled for February at Disney World. I was comfortable living in my house on base where I had been for three years. Due to employment circumstances outside our control, my wife and two sons were living in Pensacola, Florida for the past 18 months, but our relationship was strong and Pensacola was a great escape from work on the weekends. I had a great group of friends to talk to and share my thoughts with. Back then my assessment of my resiliency was as follows:

Mental: Highly Effective

Physical: Highly Effective

Social: Highly Effective

Spiritual: Highly Effective

What changed between March and August of 2019 that impacted my resiliency that much? 

A lot of unexpected circumstances began to disrupt my routine. I have been planning to retire in 2020 after 31 years of service. We have been planning this for some time, so our finances are in order, I had saved some leave so I can start my terminal leave in May and I have been forecasting certification courses and resume completion.

I reestablished connections with friends in the civilian world to let them know that I was preparing to retire in the next year. Everything seemed to be on track so I set a date for August 1, 2020.

With the retirement date set, I completed my last fitness test in June of 2019 and convinced myself to take a break from physical training. I deserved it after the half-marathon and putting in a 95 on my test. I did not know that this would turn into nearly 2 months of no regular fitness and start impacting my physical domain.

Then the issues started to arise in the mental domain. Just when all was going well, my wife’s father passed away in Philadelphia. They were very close and it was hard on the family. We had not budgeted leave or funeral expenses into our plan. No problem, we will be OK. 

I would just have to adjust my terminal leave and her brothers helped with the cost of the funeral, but the important thing is that we were there with the family when he passed. Her mother was not in great health either, so this began to weigh on us since we are so far away and can provide little assistance. 

Some of the family drama that occurs when a loved one passes started to arise and added to the stress of the situation. That same week, my aunt passed away, but I made the decision to be there with my wife rather than go home to Kansas City, which added strain on that side of the family. 

Once we got back home, I was notified that I was selected for a deployment from October to April --Definitely not part of my retirement plan.

I rationalized it and figured I had not deployed in seven years and I had not indicated outside of my immediate chain of command that I was going to retire. It will just be another missed Christmas with the family (we have dealt with that four other times in the past, no big deal). 

To prepare for this deployment we figured it would make more financial sense to not pay rent in Mississippi and a mortgage in Pensacola while I was gone, so I had to spend three weeks packing out my base house and putting some of it in storage, some of it in our Florida house and some of it in a small apartment that I will stay in until I deploy. 

It was at about this time that my eye began to twitch . . . a lot. I had never experienced this before. Some research revealed this can be brought on by stress. The funny thing is I did not feel stressed. I was tired from moving furniture and boxes daily and pulling a trailer to Pensacola every weekend, then moving all of that furniture again, but that was just fatigue not stress . . . right? 

Finally, my social domain began to waiver. I had a really solid group of friends on base who I would commiserate with and relieve some of that stress, but after moving, they were not within walking distance anymore and several of them relocated to new assignments. I was spending a lot more time alone than I was used to.

Notice, I have not even talked about work yet. During this time, we lost three long time employees to retirement and permanent changes of station out of a seven-person shop. There was a major air show exercise that Air Education and Training Command wanted to come observe and the air show itself. All of this, in addition to our normal inspection and exercise schedule.

I had three cases that required a lot of my attention. Additionally, we had a new wing commander coming on board, so the staff was in flux. 

I was feeling tired at work and at home. I was not eating well because my house was a wreck from moving and I didn’t have time to cook. I couldn’t find the motivation to work on classes, read a book or go to the gym. I started feeling like if I was doing those things then I wasn’t taking care of tasks at work or getting myself ready to move to my apartment. I could not find room for my mental, social and physical pillars.

I was out of balance, off my routine and not mission ready.

I went from maintaining a highly effective resiliency program to one that was marginal in only six months. 

I have a personal mantra that I share with Airmen whenever I have a chance. My kids are also very aware of this saying because it is how we have overcome so many challenges in our life. It is of the same thread as “hakuna matata” and “don’t sweat the small stuff,” but elicits analysis rather than dismissiveness. “Control what you can. Manage what you can’t.”  It causes you to stop and consider whether you have control over any aspect of the situation. You can then separate the issue into what you do and do not control and take the appropriate actions.

For example, I have no control over the Air Force tasking me for a deployment, but I control when I retire, so I moved the date to relieve some of those stressors. I control my fitness, so I established a new routine in my new life to meet my physical needs to stay healthy and fit.

I am not a religious person, but I often rely on the Air Force chaplain corps for help. They have two important factors that make them a great resource, even if you do not practice any particular religion.  They are trained counselors and will listen to your issues and provide sound advice. Additionally, all communication with them is privileged and cannot be shared with anyone. I have used the chapel resources often when deployed or when there are just a lot of stressors happening in my life that I need help sorting out.

We all know that resiliency is not something we fix with a one day strategic pause. The strategic pause is meant to give all Airmen an opportunity to take a break, assess their own wellbeing and do some maintenance on all of their pillars. Resiliency is something that is managed over a lifetime and is a part of the culture. Establishing a personal self-assessment in your schedule on a regular basis can be the one thing that helps you or another Airman change that culture and stay mission ready and resilient.

Here are the steps I would recommend for you to perform your own self-assessment in your personal programs. 

The Self-Assessment Process:

1. Establish a regular interval for assessing your program (monthly, quarterly, annually, adjust following major changes)

2. Identify the standard to be measured against (AFI 90-5001-Comprehensive Airman Fitness Domains and Tenets or your personal resiliency measure)

3. Conduct the self-assessment and document the findings in a report (Identify recommended improvement areas, strengths, top performers)

4. Provide your assessment to a validator to validate the findings (Find a trusted individual to help validate your personal assessment.  Your spouse, intimate partner, chaplain, best friend, mentor, supervisor, first sergeant, sibling, roommate, etc. Anyone that will give you heartfelt feedback on your assessment of your resiliency program.)

5. Conduct a root cause analysis to determine source of observations

6. Develop a corrective action plan and share with the validator to ensure the plan addresses the root cause (Consider the Keesler Community Action Team Matrix to find helping agencies to assist in addressing your issues)

7. Establish regular short intervals to assess the effectiveness of the plan, make adjustments as necessary and keep the validator involved to help provide feedback on the progress (daily, weekly, monthly)

8. Close observations when satisfied that they are fully addressed (Set goals and milestones to measure your achievements.  Reward yourself when you accomplish those goals)

9. Schedule your next self-assessment (Add a reminder to your phone to assess your resiliency again.  I set mine for 6 months down the road).

Stress is indiscriminate and can effect anyone at any time. The key is identifying the effects early and taking the appropriate actions to control it before in becomes unmanageable. The most important thing to remember is that “You got this!”  If there is ever a time it seems overwhelming . . .  “We got you!”