AFMAO keeps Airmen resilient during physical distancing

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Holly Roberts-Davis
  • Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Public Affairs

Recently Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright stressed the importance of finding a “new normal” to help Airmen thrive during the current operating environment caused by the coronavirus pandemic. For the staff assigned to Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, the resiliency team is the key to ensuring that happens. 

“This is not something that is normal for us but it’s something we’ve had to adapt to,” said Chaplain (Maj.) David Kruse, AFMAO senior military chaplain. “We never anticipated COVID-19 but this is a new norm and we need to re-engage and find a routine to get our lives back in order.”

Whether it’s eating healthy or continuing to work out, Kruse recommends identifying the things we incorporated before COVID-19 and building them back into our lives as much as we can. 

“Our Airmen need to have tools in their resiliency tool belt to help them when they do have adverse situations in their lives,” said Kruse. “AFMAO does a great job with the various classes and opportunities that we offer, so they can pick the tools that they need to navigate through whatever they are confronted with.”

Shelley Merritt is AFMAO’s full-time resiliency program coordinator. She says the resiliency program at AFMAO is unique because of the embedded nature of the caregivers. The unit has full-time mental health technicians, chaplains and military family life counselors available to personnel 24/7. 

“Our commander’s number one priority is the resiliency of our Airmen and that has not changed due to the current pandemic,” said Merritt.

AFMAO’s resiliency program had been a proactive approach to helping the team effectively cope with the mission's unique stressors long before the coronavirus started having an impact on the unit. Classes focused on four different aspects of wellbeing: spiritual mental, physical and emotional health. Recently the program was expanded to include professional development education. 

“The resiliency program at AFMAO is one of the best put together programs I’ve seen,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Dani Pierson, a mental health technician deployed to AFMAO from Joint Base Andrews, Md. “It helps them make connections with the people around them and that connection makes them feel a sense of belonging and normalcy in an environment that is abnormal to most. It’s important to keep (the program) as similar as possible to when we were operating in a normal capacity.”

While the need for a strong resiliency program at AFMAO may be present more than ever, Merritt acknowledges the program looks different than it did a few months ago. With physical distancing requirements and increased teleworking for members, it has challenged her and the team to find different ways to communicate and provide equal opportunities without constant in-person contact. 

“My job is people and I am here to be that bridge between our caregivers and what they have to offer,” said Merritt. “I continue to do that the best way possible through leadership guidance and new ways of communicating. It has definitely forced us to think outside the box and truly capitalize on social media and technology like never before.”

From meditation classes via video conference to visiting with Airmen still working in the facility, both Merritt and Kruse agree that resiliency goes beyond the programs put in place. They say the success of AFMAO’s mission is to have a continued resiliency presence during this unique time.

“Resiliency is up to all of us, it’s relational,” said Kruse. “It’s empowering leadership, whether section leads or division chiefs, to reach out to their people. It takes a village to take care of an Airman and all of us share in that responsibility to ensure we are all taking care of one another.”
Merritt acknowledges the difficulty in adapting to the changes but overall is impressed with how the team has risen to meet the challenge. 

“I think the new normal is constantly changing its form as we seek out ways to meet people’s needs with the limitations we have,” explained Merritt. “I am so excited to see folks coming up with their own ideas and presenting them. They aren’t being reactive, they are being extremely proactive.”

One Airman Merritt says is taking resiliency into her own hands is Staff Sgt. Parish Thacker. Thacker, deployed from Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, N.Y., is a manager on duty for the Fisher House for Families of the Fallen, which provides families a place to stay when traveling to Dover AFB to witness the dignified transfer of their loved one. 

Thacker started with a few events like Taco Tuesday and game night but eventually others got involved and she’s been able to offer even more. 
“I decided to create a calendar for the deployers so we can continue resiliency and get out of our rooms,” she said. 

That calendar has grown from what Thacker originally started and is now sent out to AFMAO members weekly.

Aside from Thacker, many other deployed members are adjusting to this time as best as they know how to. One takeaway from the program is reminding members they’re not in this alone. 

“This is the first time that we, individually and collectively are facing this,” said Kruse. “It might be different for me than what I’m used to and because I’m isolated now I might assume I’m the only one experiencing that – so we have to put things in perspective and realize that things we’re experiencing fall within the norm of what is expected.”

Even though Pierson, who has been with the team since January, said she believes the team is adapting well to the “new normal” of their lives, she recognizes there are going to be challenges along the way. 

“There have been a few bumps, but those are expected with any change,” acknowledged Pierson. “It’s more of a challenge to get an accurate read on the well-being of the deployers if I am not physically seeing them as often as before. So we have to find new ways to offer some of the resiliency opportunities and still keep our deployers safe during this difficult time.”

Some of those new ways include holding virtual resiliency classes bi-weekly at set times or providing meals and encouraging small groups to gather while maintaining physical distancing requirements. According to the commander, the goal isn’t to hit a mandatory requirement each week but to provide a variety of options that people will actually take advantage of. 

The chaplain admits the new conditions require him to use certain skills he didn’t necessarily have to before.

“Texting or a phone conversation is only one dimension – resiliency is the whole human concept,” said Kruse. “Social distancing limits the ability to fully communicate. I have to be more attuned to what you’re saying, I have to listen to your voice, listen for your emphasis on words and extract from it the emotion and the other things that are visible during a face-to-face conversation.”

A study conducted by The University of California Los Angeles claims 93 percent of communication is non-verbal and methods like texting can sometimes cause more problems in the long run – a finding Pierson takes seriously in her job as a mental health technician.

“I cannot stress enough that anyone can say they are doing well over a text, and this could be the farthest thing from the truth,” warns Pierson. “The biggest piece of advice I can give to a unit is to continuously check on their members and their well-being.”


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