Tech. Sgt. Benson: Mental health matters

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jayden Ford
  • Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations

As an Airman walks into the Center for Families of the Fallen, she approaches a family member who is clearly in distress — she knows because she has seen this all before. The two begin talking and the family member shares photos and stories of their loved one as they laugh and cry. As they load into the vehicle to transport them to the flight line where they will watch the dignified transfer of their fallen service member, the air hangs heavy and everyone is quiet — tears falling from every face on the bus. In this moment, she understands the importance of her mission, taking care of not only the families, but everyone involved in these solemn movements, more than ever.

Tech. Sgt. Haley Benson, Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations mental health technician, has spent her deployment dedicated to providing care, service and support to families of the fallen while striving to improve the AFMAO resiliency team — ensuring every member of AFMAO was cared for on every level.

“My ultimate goal at AFMAO was to support, mentor and encourage deployers and permanent party members to enhance their knowledge on mental health through the available counseling and classes they could obtain while being in this mission,” Benson said. “I also hoped to get to know the deployers on a personal level by building bonds through our sacred mission and spending time together one-on-one.”

These goals directly align with the crucial importance of having a mental health technician here at AFMAO to provide specialty care to those who may be in crisis.

“Mental health technicians bring a unique capability and expertise to our mission,” said Maj. Matthew Knight, AFMAO senior chaplain. “Their expertise helps us focus on front-line mental health care and triage for potentially more serious mental health incidents or concerns. In a place like AFMAO, where we work with human remains and people in acute grief, it's important to have a specialist who can help us identify and address mental health concerns early and often.”

For any mental health technician who deploys to AFMAO, the transition from working in a clinic to being embedded into a unit is not an easy task. For Benson, she said the key to success during her time here was opening up to those around her.

“I was so conditioned to working in a clinic and the structure of a hospital is very different from AFMAO.” Benson said. “I had to quickly get creative and open up in a different way emotionally so that I could build rapport with the unit. Moving through that challenge required trust in myself, specifically regarding my knowledge, experience and personal values.”

During her deployment, Benson used her expertise to ensure family members of fallen service members were provided with some form of comfort — even if that meant just being present with them as they walked through their grief.

“Sometimes there are never enough words to express the pain that somebody might be going through when they've lost a loved one,” Benson said. “Just showing up and being a genuine person is sometimes all anyone ever needs because nothing is abnormal when grieving. Knowing that as a medical technician allows people to feel safe with me.”

As part of a larger resiliency team, Benson also served the members who carry out the sacred mission at AFMAO to ensure they too were provided with tools to cope with the emotions that arise from performing such a heavy mission.

“You don't have to shut off your emotions, but rather direct them in a positive direction,” said Benson. “We let them know that these emotions can often lead them into a great decision, focus or guide their hearts where they need to be led. So, they need to listen to these emotions, process them and everything will work out in due time.”

Now that Benson is finishing up her time here at AFMAO, she found herself reflecting on the lessons she has learned during her time here.

“The mission and specifically the incredible resiliency team I had the honor of working with have given me a deeper understanding on the importance of connection,” Benson said. “This can happen by a simple conversation or completing a goal together. I feel this mission has expanded my view on the importance of the little moments of connection throughout the day that you could seemingly take for granted.”

Benson emphasized the importance of the connections she has made here and her hopes for her fellow AFMAO members as she departs.

“I hope that they understand that I did my best to see their most true, beautiful, authentic self and then I encouraged them to bring that forward,” Benson said. “I hope that they say that Sgt. Benson saw me for me.”