Air Force's Combat Wingman program aims to foster relationships
A new initiative takes flight Monday at Air Force bases around Europe, with officials hoping to create one big, happy family.
Or, at the least, generally content USAFE communities.
Combat Wingman launches with a goal of “making ‘Air Force family’ not just a jingle, but getting people to think about what it really means,” said Lt. Col. Pete Ellis. Wings across the theater will take the day to introduce the program to all airmen.
Ellis, special assistant to the U.S. Air Forces in Europe commander, Gen. Robert H. Foglesong, said bringing airmen closer together — and getting them to take more responsibility for one another — could help tackle issues such as drunken driving, suicides and sexual assaults.
“Lots of problems go away if you can adopt the attitude and commitment,” Ellis said in a phone interview.
Under the program, airmen are going to be encouraged to formally act as a wingman to at least one other airman by offering time, advice, someone to talk to and a little understanding. Such agreements might be written down, but don’t have to be as long as they’re taken seriously.
“The foundation of this program is built on commitment at a personal level,” Foglesong wrote in an open letter to the command. “Combat Wingman is a sacred contract that promotes a genuine concern for our airmen — and I mean our military and civilian airmen — and their families through mutual, self-directed relationships with each other.”
Lt. Col. Dave Arreola, chief consultant for mental health for USAFE, said those in the command aren’t any worse off than those elsewhere — or in society in general.
“Certainly the idea of airmen taking care of airmen goes back a long way,” he said, referring to battles in the air as well as life on the ground.
But he said there’s a sense that Air Force members aren’t as close as they used to be.
“I think a lot of things have changed in the culture at large,” he said, adding that the Air Force mirrors society in a lot of ways.
At least one of those ways has Air Force leadership alarmed. The suicide rate in the service, traditionally much lower than in society in general, has soared. Through Oct. 27, 46 airmen took their lives this year — including several in Europe.
Arreola said that’s still a lower average than in society at large. But it’s almost twice as high as in recent years.
“It is something that senior leaders are concerned about,” he said.
So it’s hoped that Combat Wingman will be a way for those who are depressed to get help and others to notice warning signs.
But Ellis said suicide is only one of many concerns that he hopes the program will combat.
“We don’t want anyone focusing on just any one negative behavior,” he said.
The program is fairly open-ended, Ellis said, so individuals can make it work best for them. Arreola says a one-on-one relationship might work best for some, while small groups may work best for others.
Relationships could involve talking, playing sports or just hanging out.
“We’re looking for folks to make a personal commitment to look after each other,” Ellis said. “We’re really all away from home and this is about pulling together more closely.”