Happy New Year, Making 2020 a “High Tech, High Touch” Year
Wow, once again, it has been quite a while since I wrote to you all, in fact, since last year! I have had a lot of time to think about where I am and what my purpose should be moving forward. As I get ready to turn 62 in a couple weeks, I still know I have more to offer to help others overcome obstacles, and encourage others to push through personal setbacks. I battle with my own demons and obstacles, but I refuse to let them run my life, I choose to use them as a motivator to overcome and help others overcome. Many of you know that I have chosen to focus on the fact that we lose approximately 20 veterans each day to suicide. We also know that suicide is the second leading cause of death for children now, and the “civilian” adult suicide rates are also on the rise, all very sad and unacceptable. During my cross country bike ride in 2018, I did the “20 push-ups” twice a day. There are several programs that encourage us to “do something” to help recognize and spread awareness of the fact that we are losing these lives needlessly. I have been content doing that myself, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about things I have read, things I have seen, and conversations I have had, and there has to be more to this. I lost a former student, a good friend, and an AF 2nd Lt. this past year to suicide, and although not my first experience with a close suicide, somehow this one really hit me hard.
As a young SrA in the mid 70’s, I lost a son to leukemia, and after my son’s death, I fell into a severe depressed state. Felt like my world was falling apart. At the time, I held a Top Secret/SCI clearance, and I knew that if I told anyone, I would lose my clearance, and maybe even my AF career, or at least I thought. As my world started crumbling around me, I felt the only answer for me was to not be here anymore. I was ready to end it all, and I remember being alone in my now empty base housing unit, crying my eyes out, and trying to figure out how to do it. Didn’t own a gun, but I had a knife. It was right at that moment that I got a call from my supervisor, TSgt Jumper. Don’t know why, but he called, and he could hear in my voice that something was wrong. I don’t want to drag this out, but within minutes, he was at my door, and I was on my way to Mental Health. I spent the next 2 weeks as an inpatient in the psych ward, but I survived. Yes, I had my clearance suspended for a bit, and I had to put up with “friends” talking about my trip to the “loony bin,” but I was alive. Really didn’t know what my AF future held, but eventually I got my clearance back, and was back at work. I was great for several years, but as a SSgt, I had a bit of a relapse and ended up back in the hospital. After a couple more weeks, I was discharged along with a recommendation that I be administratively separated. I thought that was it, my career is over. My commander at the time, Major Craig Little, sat me in his office and asked me what I wanted to do. I asked him what he was going to do, and he told me “Steve, I believe in you, and you have been a valuable asset to this unit, and I think you can get through this.” I told him that I would like another chance and that I felt I could get through this too and that I wanted to stay. TSgt Jumper, and Maj Little saved my life and my career, they truly cared about me! I also need to thank amazing friends, Brenda and Von Atterberry who took care of my three children in Spain while I “got better,” love you guys! The rest is history; I didn’t lose my clearance, I didn’t get kicked out, I faced my shortfalls, and I had a successful AF career, and also helped others along the way. In my 14 years as a First Sergeant, and later as a CMSgt, I used my own experience and story to help several of my folks get through their own struggles. Being able to empathize with them and show that yes, one can overcome, was very helpful along my own path and helping others. As a leader, I chose to share my vulnerability in hopes that it might allow someone to see that things aren’t as hopeless as they may seem, and that there is a chance to overcome one’s current setbacks. Where am I going with this?
Stick with me a little longer as I try to tie this into my title, “Making 2020 a High Tech and High Touch Year.” CMSgt Bob Gaylor, our 5th CMSAF, gives a speech he calls “High Tech, Low Touch.” The first time I heard this was at Hickam AFB back in the late 90s. In this lesson, he talks about how our “high tech” changes have led to a “low touch” interaction with others. Today, we have even become even more “high tech.” At an Air Force Sergeant’s Association, Division 1 convention a few years back, I was talking to Chief Gaylor about that speech and how it had stuck with me, and to my surprise, he used some of that in his speech later that evening. He added to it a bit, and brought it to our current time. High tech isn’t all bad; it allows us to be in instant contact with friends and loved ones; allows us to fly cross country in just hours; allows us to video chat with friends and family from almost anywhere in the world. High tech has many advantages, but it doesn’t change the fact that for many of us, we rely on our “tech” to satisfy our “touch.” We “like,” things, or we give a “thumbs up.” I am guilty! A friend of mine, James Carter, sent me an article after we had a conversation about my “purpose,” and I think it is important to share it here – Article – the story talks about how a suicide within their company, RK construction, has brought them all together so much more, and to a point where they can all talk about those things that could lead to another choosing suicide as the only option. From this article, I took away the importance of talking frankly, with no fear of ridicule, reprisal, or negative consequences. As leaders, it is our responsibility to foster this type of environment. In addition, we all know how hard it can be to juggle our own lives, families, professional responsibilities, community commitments, etc., and then still be concerned and supportive of those around us. Sure, we might be able to fit in our “20 push-ups” and feel good about it. Maybe, as an organization, after a suicide, we “stand-down” and get that “talk.” Everyone is on top of it for a little bit, but then, as with everything else, we get back into our own lives, our routine, and we unintentionally forget how important “high touch” is to finding a solution to lowering this high rate of suicide in our society.
Here it is folks, my plan for 2020 and moving forward. I want my “friends” to know that I truly care about them, and that I am always here to help, listen, laugh, or whatever they need. I want them to know that I am more than a “like” or “thumbs-up” on facebook or some other social media platform. I know I can’t reach out to all my “friends” every day, so I will be picking a couple friends each day to actually have a conversation with, privately, just to talk! All friends, not just the ones I know may be vulnerable, but all my friends. We don’t know what others may be going through; we often can do a great job of putting on a “happy face.” I will even offer my phone number if one of my “friends” wants to actually talk, wow, what a concept! This is not going to be easy, but if we are serious about making a change, we have to do more than push-ups, we have to truly be concerned every day, not just for the days and weeks after another tragedy. Don’t get me wrong, doing 20 push-ups every day is a great way to keep things in the forefront, but it can’t be the only thing. As a leader, be brave, be willing to talk about these things. Get to know your people, and make sure they know how important they are to you. Please join me this year and every year to help bring “high tech and high touch” together for something good. I am also available to speak to your groups, you can email me at email@example.com. I don’t charge for speaking, just need help getting there unless I happen to be in your area. You can follow me on facebook, “I Ride With Steve” for motivation, inspiration, and daily reminders! Remember, #AnyIsTooMany – BE THE DIFFERENCE!