How heavy is your backpack?
By Col. Larry Nance, 436th Operations Group commander
/ Published June 21, 2019
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- During my time at Dover Air Force Base, I’ve seen several squadrons conduct “Ruck Marches” in remembrance of fallen service members. These events allow Airmen to voluntarily put themselves in physically uncomfortable conditions to honor the ultimate sacrifice of others. Despite being challenged with marching long distances with a heavy backpack, most participants are full of pride and smiles. They truly enjoy the experience.
During my 24 years in the Air Force, I’ve come to realize that, similar to the Ruck Marches, we all carry a backpack with us every day, except they aren’t visible to everyone else. Our backpacks can be filled with heavy bricks like financial struggles, relationship issues, performance challenges, a high operations tempo or past mistakes. We go about our daily activities with our backpack firmly attached while trying to eat, sleep, work and play. Some people have light backpacks which are easy to carry while others struggle to find the strength to even get out of bed. I’ve also realized that we are insanely talented at hiding our backpack from others even when we are just one “brick” away from a complete inability to function. That shouldn’t be surprising. After all, that “suck-it-up and drive on” mentality is how we’ve been trained in order to accomplish the mission under extreme conditions. We are a proud Air Force filled with people who move mountains to execute the mission.
Like a ruck march, all of us can carry a heavy backpack for some period of time, but if we don’t do something about it, the heavy load will eventually bring you to your knees. It may begin to weigh on you so heavily that your mind begins to travel to dark places. Mentally and physically drained, you may become verbally abusive, depressed or turn to alcohol to numb your pain. Eventually, your depleted mental state may turn to thoughts of suicide as your only perceived option to escape.
So, my question to you is simple: How heavy is your backpack? Has anyone said you were acting out of character and asked if things are ok? Did you answer honestly? Look to the Airmen around you. How heavy are their backpacks? Is there someone in your flight who is acting out of character or down? Have you been a good Wingman to them? Behaviors like alcohol abuse, drug abuse or suicide are NEVER solutions. In fact, they only leave a wake of destruction and pain for yourself AND everyone around you.
I’m here to tell you there is hope, and all you have to do is open your mouth and talk. Commanders, superintendents, supervisors and first sergeants are in the business of removing bricks from backpacks…we are AWESOME at it! You don’t get along with any of them? No problem! Reach out to your Chaplain who is uniquely equipped to help and is completely confidential. Talk to our fantastic mental health providers, or schedule an appointment with a Military and Family Life Counselor who is legally bound to NOT share what was discussed with the medical community, your chain of command or even your spouse. If none of those options sound appealing, go talk with a fellow Airman. After all, if their backpack was too heavy to carry, wouldn’t you help them out?
Military life can be really hard, but you are part of an exceptional team of Wingmen providing mutual support. If your backpack is crushing your ability to function, isn’t it time to let someone around know about it so they can help with your load?
Editor’s Note: For Dover Airmen or family members in need of help or looking for helping agency resources, visit https://www.dover.af.mil/-We-Care-Guide/.