Editor's Note: This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
Ambulance sirens are wailing past my home as I write this, which makes me think of a New York Times article I read this morning: '12 Fraught Hours With E.M.T.s in a City Under Siege.' The article detailed how in Paterson, New Jersey “it sounds as if the city is under attack” due to the pervasive echoes of sirens. While the noise of the ambulance lingers down my street, I am worried that whomever they are headed to might have COVID-19 and be in critical condition.
I worry I might know them; I wonder if they are a neighbor.
Louisiana, like Paterson, is under siege. I compulsively glance at my phone for updates on the numbers of confirmed cases and deaths. The numbers are aggressive, and I find myself fearful for my family, friends, and the airmen I serve alongside at Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport. I am afraid. I think all of us are, whether we admit it or not.
Barksdale Air Force Base declared a public health emergency the week of March 17. The next week, a service member from base became our first positive case of COVID-19.
Since then Barksdale has become more restrictive about who enters base, and currently military members have been ordered to shop only at the commissary and base exchange and not venture out into the community. The local area is a COVID-19 hotspot as not everyone is following social distancing protocols. Our leadership in the Joint-Global Strike Operations Center, the Air Force’s command and control node for bomber forces, acted swiftly.
The same week the base declared a public health emergency, my unit was sent home with orders to practice social distancing and only leave the house for food or medical needs.
From that point on, our leadership began rotating teams on and off shift and established a telework battle rhythm to ensure mission continuity was balanced with keeping our people healthy. The changes were disorienting, but airmen rapidly adjusted.
Our division chief provided four values for us to focus on during this time: personal and household wellness, operational security, maintaining a professional mindset, and team cohesion. We have a clear professional purpose in maintaining mission readiness to execute the Air Force Global Strike mission if called upon (our command is the one responsible for a fleet of long-range bombers and nuclear weapons spread across the northern tier of states).
Each team has established a sense of normalcy both on and off shift, and as of right now, my division is thankfully COVID-19 free.
How well we manage the fear and anxiety within ourselves, our families and those within our units will be pivotal to how we get through the trauma of COVID-19. To lead through this pandemic, we must practice high levels of emotional intelligence with ourselves and our Airmen. How do we help guide our people through this? My leadership managed what I would call the emotional climate of alarm (fear of the unknown, anxiety over a loss of normalcy) within the first phase of change as we moved into shift work and telework.
In the midst of this unprecedented challenge to military and civilian worlds alike, the psychotherapist Esther Perel recently discussed the importance of “role continuity” and “relational continuity” on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast. We have now established role continuity in my unit with a novel battle rhythm and a continued focus on our professional purpose. But the emotional climate is now shifting to a second phase marked by ambiguity, fractured connections, shifts in a sense of purpose and most seriously, the advent of grief.
This is where we begin to run into trouble with “relational continuity,” which Perel explains is how we maintain our connection, our “social support” and “social cohesion.” We are all grieving the loss of a future we once envisioned and in many cases the loss of people we knew or loved. It is no secret how hard these emotional climates can be; the recent loss of two Air Force Academy cadets to suicide is a stark reminder of how important it is for us to continue working on our relationships with ourselves and others during this time.
It is important that Air Force senior leaders emphasize resiliency, but they cannot achieve it for our force alone. Front line supervisors, company grade officers and non-commissioned officers must connect with their people and ensure the vitality of our connections remain strong. Whether you are a newly minted senior airman or a company grade officer formally in charge of only yourself, do not underestimate the impact you can have in someone else’s life by checking in.
We must, now more than ever, work to identify what makes us resilient.
Resiliency comes from the effective management of one’s emotional environment which in turn is a byproduct of having created an ecosystem of interests which bring joy to one’s life.
The author Brene Brown has written that “there’s no such thing as creative people and non-creative people. There are only people who use their creativity and people who don’t.” As we process change on a global scale, we must encourage one another to seek purpose through creative expression. Brown argues that we make meaning through the creative expressions in our lives – cooking, drawing, singing, and dancing.
Leading with emotional intelligence, seeking connection, practicing creativity and finding purpose and meaning (both personally and professionally) should all be the resiliency focus of our force right now.
To take care of our most valued asset — our people — does not only mean to make sure they do not have COVID-19. Caring for one another must encompass connection in all forms of leadership practice. We need one another, now more than ever. This is how we can take care of each other.
This is how we take care of our nation.