Same Team

There is a type of moment that is unlike any other.

It’s a moment that can be extremely meaningful.  A singular human interaction that establishes both a certain level of affection and trust in one motion.  This can happen with friends, relatives, and strangers alike.  It’s a moment that connects you to others.  To humanity.  To the confusing, often abrasive world around you.

It’s the moment you realize that you’re not all alone.

I call this the “Same Team” effect.

The Same Team effect can manifest itself in many forms.  It can happen if you see someone who drives the same kind of car that you do, or likes the same sports team.  Maybe they’re from the same town, or like the same type of hobby.  Simply put, it’s a connection.  For me, it happens when I’m wearing something cool, like a t-shirt with a TARDIS on the front or my Space Invaders hoodie (and yes I have both of these).

Because Space Invaders are the coolest!

Because Space Invaders are the coolest! (Jessica L. Tozer)

A stranger’s face will light up when they see it and say, “Oh hey!  I like your shirt!”

I smile and say thanks, and sometimes that’s it.  Sometimes we talk about our favorite Doctor or what retro games are worth playing.  Sometimes I make friends with these people.  Sometimes I never see them again.  But for a moment – regardless if it’s fleeting or lasting – I am reminded that someone else is on my team.  That someone stands in the same strange corner of the universe that I do.

And for some, that makes all the difference.

People in general have this funny way of wanting to bond.  We like to belong.  To feel united.  Even in the smallest of ways.  It’s a part of what makes us human I suppose.

The military is a good place for people who like to be a part of something great.  The link between a service member and their branch – and fellow veterans – is a strong and mighty one.  And, as it is with every relationship, you have to take the good with the bad.  Even when the bad is really bad.

Like suicide bad.

Normally my posts are rather light-hearted and jovial, but suicide is a topic that I take seriously.  Especially when it comes to the military.  People ask themselves how it could have been avoided.  What more could have been done.  Why it had to happen.  But you know what?  Those are really hard questions to answer.  Ones that might never be answered, honestly.

So what do you do?  How do you press on knowing that a threat like suicide exists and could strike anyone at any time?

That’s something senior leaders in the military are always trying to figure out.  One service member lost to suicide is one too many.  There are quite a few programs and organizations that exist solely for the purpose of combating service member suicide.

A unique one among them is called the Wingman Project.

The Wingman Project is a peer-to-peer layperson approach to suicide intervention,” explains Air Force Colonel Edward L. Vaughan.  Col. Vaughan is a member of the Colorado Air National Guard currently serving as the ANG Advisor to the Commander and President at Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.  He’s also the man who created Wingman for Life, and its successor , the Wingman Project.

The Wingman Project provides people with the basic skills that they need to keep others alive.  Basically, it’s CPR for suicide crisis.

Col Ed Vaughan, creator of the Air Force's Wingman Project, speaks to Airmen of the 159th Fighter Wing about instilling a Wingman Ethos during a Maintenance Resource Management class he taught there. (USAF Photo courtesy Ken Wajda)

Col Ed Vaughan, creator of the Air Force’s Wingman Project, speaks to Airmen of the 159th Fighter Wing about instilling a Wingman Ethos during a Maintenance Resource Management class he taught there. (USAF Photo courtesy Ken Wajda)

“We want to equip every person out there – whether it’s military members, their families, their friends, the community – with CPR equivalent knowledge to assist, intervene, and save a life so they can get them to professional care.”

Col. Vaughan developed and fielded this program concept while working as Deputy Director of Safety for the Air National Guard .  “The safety office exists to prevent mishaps.  In the military, ‘mishaps’ often refers to things that can hurt people and kill people,” he explains.  “Mental, emotional, and spiritual resiliency issues kill people in the form of suicide.”

That’s where ACE comes in.

That stands for Ask, Care and Escort.  Ask someone if they are thinking about killing themselves.  Care for that person by removing any means that could be used for self-injury, calmly control the situation, and actively listen to what to what that person has to say.  Escort them to a professional who can help them further.  Basically, you never leave your Wingman alone.

Col. Vaughan says that as simple as it sounds, actually doing it – asking the questions and staying with someone until they get help – is the real challenge.

“Very rarely is a mental health or medical professional going to be the first person to come across someone who needs help.  More often it’s going to be a friend or a coworker or a family member,” he says.  “What we want to do with the Wingman Project is very simple.  We want to give people just enough tools and knowledge to get [the people in need] to professional help.”

ACE gets its inspiration from a medically sound principle known as QPR.  That stands for question, persuade, refer.  It’s actually a more specifically defined model for what ACE is really doing, only with not quite so catchy an acronym.  QPR has been around for about two decades, as a matter of fact, and was originally developed by Dr. Paul Quinnett.

QPR, according to Col. Vaughan, is the preferred model used by most universities.  Why?  Because it works for their demographic; typically young people going through life changes in need of coping skills.

Dr. Quinnett spent decades researching and developing this method.  He was also one of the first people Col. Vaughan met with when he was working on a formula for the military.  He wanted something that would help service members reach out to each other in a way that was both genuine and effective.

“We are all each other’s wingman,” Col. Vaughan explains.  “Although it’s important to note that the concept of being a wingman extends to all the services.”

In the Army we called them battle buddies.  The Navy has shipmates.  In the Marines…well I think they just call them Marines. The point remains, however, that looking out for your fellow service members is something that transcends crisis; it’s a part of the infrastructure of military life.

Now, the Wingman Project is not designed to take the place of all other preexisting plans; it’s designed to work in conjunction with him.  Chaplains and medical professionals have great programs in place that work diligently to help combat service member suicide.  However, Col. Vaughan says they consider it vitally important that the Wingman Project be run by regular people.

 Simply put:  “We have to all work together.”

It’s a big team strategy, really.  Having people work as “first responders” in conjunction with chaplains and medical professionals provides a more holistic approach to suicide prevention.  In military terms, we need the “first to fight” people as much as the support staff.

“The benefit of having regular people do this (in the military) is that this helps us to push the cultural change that’s going to take a long time to accomplish,” Vaughan explains.

He’s referring to the unfortunate negative stigma that hovers, ever-present, around suicide.  This is a challenge all its own.  There are many organizations and platforms dedicated to de-stigmatizing service member depression and suicide, but it’s arguably an uphill battle.  The truth of the matter is that it is happening, and it needs to be discussed.

“You don’t cause suicides talking about suicides.”

The Wingman Project was the Air Force’s way of helping people in need while also changing minds. It’s interesting in that it helps the helpers and those who need help.

Sample of Wingman Project literature; this one featuring Chaplain James Bridgham, Colorado Air National Guard.

Sample of Wingman Project literature; this one featuring Chaplain James Bridgham, Colorado Air National Guard.

When it comes down to it, a lot of what helps someone in need is knowing that they’re not the only ones who have ever endured hardships.

Basically, we’ve all got issues.

“Whatever you’ve gone through that’s helped to get you to where you are now, you could probably leverage that to help someone else who might need the leg up,” Vaughan says.  “Take the fire you’ve walked through and go help someone else walk through their fire.”

As someone who has spent the fair majority of her life enjoying what some might call the more nerdy pursuits, I have endured a fair amount of scrutiny myself.  When I run into someone who shares the same interests I do it’s nice.  More than nice.  It’s a feeling of camaraderie that I appreciate, and I’m not alone on this one.  Conventions exist, albeit inadvertently, to support the Same Team effect.  The Wingman Project exists insomuch the same mission: to remind people – specifically service members – that they matter.

We all matter.

“That’s what the Wingman Project is about,” says Col. Vaughan.  “So someone can say ‘I’m with you.  I’m your Wingman.  I’m there.  I get you.’”

Suicide prevention doesn’t always have to be the dramatic “talking the heavily armed man off the ledge” circumstance.  Sometimes all someone wants to know is that they’re not alone.  That there are people who understand.  Who sympathize.  Who care.  The Wingman Project is designed to encourage people to reach out and extend a hand to those who might need it most.

When it comes to suicide prevention, we’re all on the same team.  It’s up to all of us to make sure it stays that way.

If you or someone you know needs help, here are some places to go for assistance:

Wingman Project

Safe Helpline

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

Need help now?  Call 800-273-TALK or text 838255

Special thanks to Dr. Paul Quinnett and Chaplain (Col.) Robert Marciano for their invaluable contributions in helping to develop the Wingman Project, to ANG Director of Safety, Col. Doug Slocum, for taking the hand-off on the program, and to Col. Ed Vaughan for his contributions and information regarding this story.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.


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