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Staff Sgt. Christine Mahler, an experienced rock climber and volunteer, shows Col. Sam Angelella, 35th Fighter Wing commander, the proper technique for belaying a climber at the Weasel’s Den during Wingman Day at Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Wednesday.
Staff Sgt. Christine Mahler, an experienced rock climber and volunteer, shows Col. Sam Angelella, 35th Fighter Wing commander, the proper technique for belaying a climber at the Weasel’s Den during Wingman Day at Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Wednesday. (Angela Eggman / Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — “I’ve got your back.”

For a fighter pilot, those words from his wingman are as crucial to a successful combat mission as precise aim and quick fingers.

“From the time they brief, throughout the flight, to the time they finish the mission, the flight lead takes care of his wingman and the wingman takes care of his flight lead. They’re always a team,” said Col. Sam Angelella, 35th Fighter Wing commander.

It’s a mindset that the Air Force is trying to expand beyond the cockpit.

Bases were to pick a day recently for the second annual Wingman Day. The normal routine stops for a day and units are to have fun together while emphasizing teamwork and the time-honored buddy system, both on and off the job.

“It gives us a chance [to foster] a sense of community and a chance to revisit our core values of integrity, service before self and excellence in all we do,” Angelella said.

Misawa kicked off Wingman Day on Wednesday. Before the morning frost melted, Angelella, 35th Fighter Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Missel and the rest of the wing staff had scaled the indoor rock-climbing wall at the Weasel’s Den and played soccer.

Security Forces troops and medical staffers — sans uniform — bowled, and the 35th Services Squadron was up for dodgeball, to name some activities.

But Wingman Day wasn’t all fun and games. Servicemembers attended mandatory unit briefings on some very serious topics, including suicide prevention, substance abuse, driving safety, responsible drinking and sexual assault.

Underlying the frank talk on those issues was the message of the day: “Every individual is important, regardless of rank or position,” Missel said. “Everybody counts.”

Suicide prevention was the impetus for the inaugural Wingman Day last year, according to Air Force officials.

“At the end of October 2004, Air Force leadership was intensely focused on addressing a rising suicide rate among its active duty airmen,” stated an Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs article released this month.

At the time, according to the report, the 46 airmen who had taken their lives since Jan. 1, 2004, represented a rate of 15 per 100,000 for the year. Though that rate was a third lower than the comparative civilian 17 to 55 years-of-age population in the United States, it was the Air Force’s highest suicide rate in nine years, according to the article.

Wingman Day was created to let units openly discuss suicide prevention and other topics. So far, in fiscal 2005, the Air Force has had 29 active-duty suicides — a rate of 7.8 per 100,000 airmen — a 49 percent decrease from fiscal 2004.

“I think it’s a good investment, especially with an organization as big as we are, to take a day and stand down and focus on what’s really important, and that’s each other,” Missel said.

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