The Role of the Wingman in the U.S. Air Force Health and Wellness
By Marlon Garzo Saria, PhD, RN, AOCNS, OCN, NEA-BC, NPD-BC, FAAN
Lieutenant Colonel, 452d Aeromedical Staging Squadron, U.S. Air Force Reserve Command
Magnet Program Director and Nurse Scientist, Providence Saint John’s Health Center
“Glamorized during the ‘80s movie ‘Top Gun,’ the concept of a wingman was to always keep the lead pilot safe, even at the cost of veering off to fight the enemy. For the past few years, “wingman” has become a pledge, promise and commitment between Airmen to take care of themselves and those around them.” (Suits, 2014)
In the high-stakes world of the military, camaraderie and mutual support transcends military operations, they play a crucial role in ensuring the morale and well-being of service members. A foundational concept deeply ingrained in the Air Force culture is that of the wingman - a relationship between Airmen that rises above work culture and extends into home life. It refers to the idea that each member has a duty to look out for and support their teammates both professionally and personally. The wingman culture creates and sustains a supportive network for mutual accountability and responsibility. In terms of health and wellness, this support is especially significant. (Photo of members of the 452d Aeromedical Staging Squadron and author, Lieutenant Colonel Marlon Saria, 3rd from left).
A wingman becomes a trusted ally in an environment where physical and mental challenges are a daily reality; having someone to turn to for advice, assistance, or simply a listening ear can make a world of difference. Being a wingman goes beyond the skies; it's about accountability and responsibility on the ground too. Wingmen hold each other accountable for their actions, ensuring compliance with safety regulations and protocols, including physical, mental, and emotional fitness standards. This shared sense of responsibility not only safeguards individuals but the entire team. Each wingman is invested in the safety and well-being of their fellow Airmen, resulting in a collective effort to maintain a healthy environment.
Physical Fitness and Training
In the Air Force, maintaining physical fitness is non-negotiable. A wingman serves as a motivator, helping to ensure that each member is adhering to the rigorous training standards required. Whether it's hitting the gym, engaging in regular workouts, or maintaining a healthy diet, having a wingman to train alongside provides the necessary accountability and encouragement to stay on track.
The demanding nature of Air Force operations necessitates peak physical fitness. Wingmen play a pivotal role in ensuring their comrades are physically prepared for the rigors of their duties. This involves regular fitness training, monitoring each other's health, and encouraging a healthy lifestyle to keep everyone in top physical condition. (Photo at left of Critical Care Air Transport Team Registered Nurses Captain Lyndsay Jeanes and Captain Brian Sullivan after completing their annual fitness evaluation).
Mental Health and Emotional Well-being or Emotional Support and Camaraderie
The mental and emotional toll that Air Force duties can take on an individual is significant. A wingman serves as a support system during both high-stress situations and the everyday challenges of military life. Lending an empathetic ear, providing encouragement during challenging times, and, if necessary, connecting a colleague with mental health resources is crucial for maintaining airmen's overall well-being.
The mental well-being of Air Force personnel is just as critical as their physical fitness. The pressure and stress associated with their roles can be overwhelming. They often recognize signs of stress or mental fatigue and guide their comrades to seek professional help when needed. Open communication and fostering a stigma-free environment are essential aspects of maintaining optimal mental health.
Emotional support of a wingman is invaluable in the tight-knit community of the Air Force. The strong bonds formed within the ranks create a sense of camaraderie and trust. Wingmen offer emotional support during both professional and personal challenges. Celebrating victories and milestones together, as well as consoling during losses, fosters a sense of belonging and unity, which significantly contributes to the overall wellness of each team member.
Encouraging a Culture of Openness
The wingman relationship fosters an environment where airmen feel comfortable discussing their concerns and seeking help when needed. Open communication is key to addressing mental health issues and stress effectively. By encouraging dialogue and removing the stigma associated with seeking assistance, the wingman plays a vital role in promoting a culture of wellness.
Air Force operations can be demanding and taxing, often pushing individuals to their limits. The presence of a wingman ensures that airmen aren't shouldering the burden alone. By recognizing signs of burnout or compassion fatigue early on, a wingman can intervene, offering necessary support and encouraging rest and recovery.
The role of an Air Force wingman extends far beyond the confines of the aircraft or mission. It encompasses a holistic commitment to the health and wellness of fellow airmen. Through this interwoven network of support, the Air Force builds resilience, promotes physical and mental fitness, and ultimately ensures a stronger, more cohesive team, ready to face the challenges that come their way.
Please share your stories of how you have served as a “wingman” in our discussion below.
Suits, D. (2014). Wingman now a part of BMT culture. Retrieved from https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/547438/wingman-now-a-part-of-bmt-culture/ on 28 October 2023.
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