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What does it really mean to be a Wingman

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

Having served now for almost two decades I can say that the philosophies and training associated with being a Wingman have not really changed.  At least twice a year, we come together as organizations and discuss the four pillars of Comprehensive Airman Fitness (Physical, Emotional, Spiritual and Social), deep-dive into the warning signs of depression or in severe cases suicidal ideations, and engage in a sport or fellowship activity to end the day.  The training is designed to facilitate open dialogues so our past experiences can translate into lessons learned making us better wingmen.  The training sessions are helpful, but what happens between those focus days?  How do we care for each Airmen and properly react to their needs during the remaining 363 days in the year?  I argue THAT is the real definition of a Wingman…the constant culmination of daily connections and the small acts of kindness show how we care for our brothers and sisters. 

                On the advice of our tremendous legal office I will not share any specific details regarding personnel information of military members, but in multiple instances during my time in the Air Force I have watched Airmen struggle through depression and sometime suicidal tendencies.  Specifically, there was one case that I will classify as a “very near miss” or “glove-save.”  Luckily, the member reached out to a co-worker through text messages and sent comments that were just out of place and quite concerning.  After a few message exchanges, the co-worker’s training kicked in and he called the member and asked if the he was thinking about hurting themselves.  The member said yes, so the co-worker engaged to save the member’s life.  I am happy to say the member is still here today.

                The top-level takeaway is that the member reached out to someone he saw as a Wingman and that co-worker responded just as we all hope we would.  However, the deeper lesson here is not about the co-worker’s lifesaving actions.  No, the important message is why the member reached out at all.  What made him send those cryptic texts that opened the door to an admission of suicidal thoughts?  The answer is trust.  The member trusted his co-worker enough to share his pain and tell the truth when asked if he was thinking of hurting himself.  Regarding the concept of trust I see it as a commodity, not unlike the dollars in a savings account.  It is built slowly over time and, if not careful, can be squandered away very quickly.  Albert Einstein probably said it best, “Whoever is careless with the trust in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” The member trusted his co-worker with this monumental issue, because the co-worker proved himself a trustworthy person.  Every assigned project they coordinated on, every unit morale function they attended, every insignificant office interaction they had, banked a massive amount of trust and that day the member invested that trust in his co-worker, in his Wingman…and it paid dividends. 

So what does it mean to be a Wingman, it means being worthy of trust, each time, every day, in all contacts big or small so that when the bullets start to fly your Airman knows who they can depend on to fly on their wing and get them home safe.