NEWS | Aug. 12, 2009

Caring for those who care for the fallen, their families

By Capt. Heather Garrett Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center Public Affairs

"Dignity, honor, respect for the fallen ... Care, service, support for their families," this is the mantra of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center and for the men and women who work here it is at the heart of what they do. The unique work takes a lot out of a person physically, emotionally and spiritually but "this is a sacred mission and sacred calling," they say.
"It is a very intimate and unusual environment to work in. Much of what is done here cannot be discussed with people on the outside," said Master Sgt. Robin Raine, a Psychological Health Advocate Technician assigned to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center. "This creates a feeling of exclusion for many because they aren't able to talk about what they do, even with their own families."
The high levels of physical and emotional demands placed on members of the AFMAO team drives a need to have someone available to help at all times. Historically this help came from a Traumatic Stress Response Team, which took a reactive approach to care, in other words, help came after an individual reached the breaking point. 

"We owe our Airman better than just responding in times of crisis," said Colonel Bob Edmondson, the AFMAO commander. "We know our team is uniquely stressed and we owe them an enhanced ability to cope with what they deal with on a day to day basis. We owe them a proactive vice a reactive approach." 

In order to be proactive, AFMAO established a Resiliency Team May 5 to promote and encourage a focus on the four quadrants of wellness: mental, spiritual, social/emotional, and physical. The team consists of chaplains, mental health professionals, a physical fitness expert, and morale, welfare and recreation organizers. 

"The Resiliency Team is the only Air Force program that addresses the four quadrants," said Major Jennifer Burke, a Psychological Health Advocate with the 349th Medical Group, Travis AFB, Calif., who played an integral part in establishing the team. "The team members are there not only to help individuals deal with the stresses they encounter, but also to help them grow as individuals." 

Three months after inception, the team is excited about their proactive approach and the benefits it is bringing to the workforce. 

"The whole idea of the Resiliency Team came about to equip our team to be more capable of coping with stressors," said Chief Master Sgt. Johnnie Smith, AFMAO's Chief Enlisted Manager deployed here from the Beale AFB, Calif. "We really do hope that folks who work in this building leave here having become more whole and healthy people." 

All members of the Resiliency Team work exclusively in and for AFMAO; they are an integral part of the team and mission. This integration provides them with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the work, its stresses, and its effects on individuals within the walls. Each of the work areas within AFMAO is unique and the specific jobs of the members who work here vary greatly. Unless the Resiliency Team is aware of what these variations entail, they will not be prepared to help individuals who seek them out. 

"Being in the same building helps because we are exposed to the same stresses as we walk in each others' shoes," said Chaplain (Major) Klavens Noel, a chaplain deployed here from the 927th Air Refueling Wing, MacDill AFB, Fla. "It helps us develop relationships so that we can effectively provide care in time of crisis." 

The team spends quality time in each section developing relationships in order to understand the different stress levels and make them more approachable. This development of relationships coupled with immediate access to the resiliency team does encourage those who need it to seek help.

"Knowing there are people willing to listen to us is extremely helpful," said Mary Ellen Spera, a mortuary specialist. "The people here know what we are dealing with everyday and that makes me comfortable talking with them." 

The mental health technicians are not the only ones who understand the stresses placed on members. Chaplains provide individuals within this diverse community counsel and spiritual guidance. 

"In this building our mental health professionals work more closely with chaplains than any other place I have served or observed. Together we not only understand the pressures placed on those who work here but strategize how best to address those stresses; both individually and systemically," said Chaplain Sparks. "For chaplains a focus on the wholeness of the individual is a deeply spiritual adventure. While this ministry is not focused on a particular religion or denomination it is for me a fulfillment of a lifetime call to ministry." 

The spiritual guidance provided is a means for individuals to look at how being deployed here affects them. 

"No one is prepared for what they will experience when they come to work here at the mortuary. Having access to spiritual leaders is critically important because they help us adjust to working here; but also, they help us understand this mission and our experiences in terms of our personal views on life," said 2nd Lt. Sidonya Fulton, a force support officer deployed here from the 5th Force Support Squadron, Minot AFB, N.D. 

The Resiliency Team has not only influenced the way many individuals feel about themselves, but how they feel about the military as well. 

"Being here has given me a greater sense of pride and worthiness," said Staff Sgt. Samantha Ferrell, an autopsy technician deployed here from the 92nd Force Support Squadron, Fairchild AFB, Wash. "My morale has never been higher because of the whole experience and the Resiliency Team has changed my outlook on the military completely." 

The members of AFMAO not only need people to talk to, they also need a way to combat stress. For AFMAO this means the Resiliency Team's extreme fitness program. 

"Our fitness program is designed to incorporate not only organized or formal techniques, but also includes motivation, relaxation and nutrition; we take a holistic (whole person) approach to wellness," said Technical Sgt. Gail Reed-Harmon, AFMAO's director of fitness and wellness. She added the program gives individuals a place to "let it all out." 

The program consists of ten separate corporate workout sessions and a wellness education class each week, as well as monthly fun runs and other activities. Members are required to attend at least three workout sessions a week as well as the educational classes. 

"Our physical fitness program is about more than just passing the Air Force Physical Fitness Test. It is all about building teams, creating balance, enhancing physical wellness, and countering stress," said Col. Edmondson "exercise positively changes brain chemistry and provides an avenue toward mental and spiritual wellness." 

Morale, Welfare and Recreation is another essential quadrant overlooked in some deployed environments, but considered vital by AFMAO's Resiliency Team. Within this quadrant, deployed members are encouraged to combat feelings of homesickness, loneliness and seclusion through a variety of planned group activities. Beyond this, friendships are formed, strengthened and solidified. 

According to Senior Airman Rochanda Hicks, deployed here from the 459th Services Flight, 459th Air Reserve Wing, Andrews AFB, Md., the importance of MWR is providing opportunities for people to do something with others away from the work environment. "We provide a sense of fellowship and family through the activities we plan," she said. This sense continues long after those deployed here return home and enhances the relationships of those that work here on a permanent basis. 

The Resiliency Team recently initiated a rest and relaxation room within the AFMAO. The "Oasis," as it is called, offers a quiet escape for people to relax. Designed to be tranquil, with minimal outward distractions, offers members a place to relax in the massage chair and center themselves in the serenity of the soothing scents and sounds. 

The Resiliency Team is breaking new ground in terms of enhancing a critically important mission by prioritizing the care and self-care of all members of the AFMAO team. 

"Members of the AFMAO team now leave here not only with the pride of having done the critically important work of caring for the fallen and their families but also with an often brand new lifestyle of keeping themselves healthy in a balanced way," said Maj. Burke. "The Resiliency Team has enhanced their lives and this will continue in ways that will benefit the member, their families and the Air Force as a whole."