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  • Writer's picturejen saraceno

Connecting the Dots...Ben and My Airmen

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

I first shared this story on my Facebook page on November 16, a time I was doing alot of soul searching, messy work trying to make sense of some trying time, attempting to really know myself, understand my purpose. This story just feels like a good one to kick off my blog.

Open Kimono Stories:  "Connecting the Dots...Ben & My Airmen"

“The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness—even our wholeheartedness—actually depends on the integration of all of our experiences, including the falls.”  

--Brene Brown, in Rising Strong

For those who have read some of my previous posts, you know that I believe everything that occurs in our lives—good or bad—happens for a reason.  There are times when we can pinpoint that reason as we have the experience.  There are also times when it can take days, months, years, decades before we find meaning in what has happened in our life.   Only then can we begin to connect the dots and own it as part of our story, part of who we are as human beings.  As I look back on the past year or so at the squadron, I finally made one of those “connections.”  

Early in my command, I recognized there was an issue I needed to address.  I was surrounded daily by the most amazing, talented, innovative, creative Airmen in the world.  Too many Airmen, however, were afraid to seek out help—physical or mental.  They feared that doing so would limit their ability to fly or to maintain a clearance.  My instincts told me that we needed to do something fast to help change the thinking…change the squadron culture.  

As I thought through this, I felt a strong desire to connect with my Airmen in a way that went beyond me simply trying to convince them with Air Force statistics that I believed seeking help was better than not doing so…that I truly believed their well-being was more important than the mission.   As a result, I decided to do something that scared the crap out of me…

I sat on a bar stool in front of them…asked all those standing to take a seat on the floor…and told them my story...really, I told them part of Ben’s story.

I started with…”This commander’s call is going to be open kimono folks (insert some chuckles from the crowd)…I’ve had a wonderful life…but it hasn’t been all sunshine and butterflies…” and after a few minutes of sharing some goodness as well as some life challenges, I said…

“One of my darkest moments was losing my brother, Ben, to suicide 14 years ago.”

You could hear a pin-drop…and as tears welled in my eyes, I saw the same happening to others.  I quickly told them I am not telling them this story to elicit sympathy.  Rather, “there is a point.”

I then continued to tell my Airmen what I learned from the loss.  I even shared that I—their commander—chose to talk to someone about his death and even other challenges in my life…to help me process it all.  Because of what Ben did, because of what I learned from the loss of my brother, I wanted to ensure that those who were struggling, those who needed family counseling, or those needing to talk to someone about daily operational stressors would get the care and support they needed.  If my Airmen aren’t well, if their families aren’t well, we risk failure across the board.  But, even more so, we risk losing amazing people.  THAT’s not a risk I was willing to take.  We were going to do what we could to prevent that.

Over the last decade plus…I’ve processed the loss of my brother.  I own how I feel about what happened.  I’ve made peace about it with Ben’s spirit.  I have spoken about it with close friends and family.  The point is…it’s something I can talk about easily.  Nevertheless, I know I potentially risked my acceptance and credibility in the squadron by letting my guard down and wearing my heart on my Airmen Battle Uniform blouse as I shared my story and Ben’s story.  I know that I risked letting hundreds of Airmen see a chink in the armor they may think I wear.  Deep down, however, I knew it was a risk I had to take.  I had to be true to myself and true to them.   And I did just that.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but sharing my story…Ben’s story, ended up being a catalyst of sorts…as if people were waiting for the green light.  Over the course of several weeks, the following occurred:

--The Chaplain assigned to the squadron asked if we could move his office into the secure facility…so he’d have a regular presence…

--A week or so later, I received an email from a new operational mental health professional on base who wanted to speak to the sqd and bring her therapy dog, Lilly, to meet our Airmen…they love Lilly!!

--A team of Airmen, without prompting, helped determine the best location for the Chaplain’s office and worked tirelessly to paint, move furniture, decorate…creating a quiet (that’s a relative term in our unit!), safe place for people to meet.

--Airmen seemed more comfortable reaching out for help…through the Chaplain, or counselors, the First Sergeant…and some have even stopped me in the hall to share their stories…

It’s by no means perfect…we have a beast of a squadron…we may not reach everyone…but we’ll try.  We’ll do our best to provide resources and create a climate that no longer stigmatizes “help seeking.”

Ben decided to take his own life 15 years ago this week.  I’m pretty certain, back then, society did not talk as much about suicide awareness or encourage help seeking behavior as we do today.  It was easier to build up walls and pretend everything was okay rather than seek out help.  I know.  I used to wear that armor!! ;)  

Anyway, I will never know exactly why Ben did what he did.  And even if I did know why, I don’t know if I would have had the knowledge required to help him or stop him.  What I do know is that I miss him--and I don’t want anyone to think they are ever alone, that suicide is the only answer, and that saving face or getting the job done is more important than seeking support.  

As much as I’d rather have my brother back, alive and picking on me, he’s still forever with me.  Ben’s story is part of my story.  And after 15 years of experiencing anger, frustration, confusion, and acceptance…I finally connected the dots.   While it seems bizarre to thank you…I’d rather you were here…but thank you, Ben, for, in the strangest way possible, helping me help my Airmen...and helping me.

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