Encouraging resiliency through recreation

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Brigitte N. Brantley
  • JBER Public Affairs

Within just an hour’s drive of Anchorage are hundreds of opportunities for Airmen and Soldiers to get outside and enjoy the beauty Alaska is known for globally.

As the days at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson quickly head toward near-complete darkness, the visit of U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall Aug. 20 through 22 was well timed. A long-time advocate for resiliency and well-being through outdoors adventures, his stay here coincided with an Air Force-wide “resiliency tactical pause.”

With Air Force suicides in 2019 on pace to reach potentially 160 deaths by the end of the year, according to an Aug. 1 video posted here by Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright, something has to be done.

“Someone, right now, in your organization, is struggling,” Wright stated. “Someone in your organization is suffering from post-traumatic stress or depression. Someone in your organization is feeling hopeless, and they may be thinking that suicide is the answer. Give them better options.”

In that same video, Wright announced a resiliency tactical pause decided on by Air Force senior leaders as a way to reconnect with Airmen and help lead them to a better answer than suicide. 

In Marshall’s opinion, one backed by many studies, the best answer to dealing with the stressors of the military and life in general is a healthy relationship with the outdoors.  

In his role as the deputy chief of the Research and Scholarship Division at the Center for Character and Leadership Development at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Marshall is in charge of helping cadets grow into leaders through adventure- and experiential-based learning. As a former special operations pilot who has led teams up the highest peak on every continent, in addition to an exhaustive resume of outdoor adventures in more than 40 countries, he had plenty of personal experiences with the outdoors to share with Airmen.

 “Alaska is just about the greatest place in the entire Air Force for this, since there are 24/7 outdoor opportunities available,” said Marshall. “There’s research that shows that going on even a short walk outside will increase your cognitive function, and it also lowers cortisol, which is a stress hormone,” he added. “The longer you get outside, the longer the positive results and health benefits are.”

In response to the “resiliency tactical pause” ordered by the Air Force, units across JBER chose their own ways to address how to support resiliency, from small group discussions to outdoors team-building exercises.

Mark Schaffeld, a Task Force True North social worker and resiliency coach embedded in the 773d Logistics Readiness Squadron, said he knew Marshall would be a fitting person to talk with Airmen about dealing with and getting through tough situations.

“Task Force True North is about helping increase resiliency and decrease the stigma of seeking mental health help,” said Schaffeld, who knew of Marshall initially through his cousin, but later more closely when he and Marshall were part of a group that climbed Mount Rainier in Washington. “That climb for me was a life-changing experience. In LRS, we already make some use of outdoors activities as a stress relief, since we want Airmen to know this is one of the options they have. We just need them to know these resources are out there. Help is available, we’re all human – please, take advantage of these resources.”

He added that part of being human is knowing when to ask for help, and that if an Airman feels they have a problem, it’s better to start addressing that problem sooner rather than later.

This is a lesson Marshall learned firsthand early in his career as a junior officer. As a new Osprey pilot who had recently returned from a deployment that ended in the tragic loss of several teammates – ones flying an identical mission he had flown the day prior – Marshall said he was plagued with survivor’s guilt.

“I tell Airmen that for all the mountains I’ve climbed over the years, the hardest climb I’ve ever had to make was those two flights of stairs up to mental health,” he said. “Especially coming from a special operations background, asking for help isn’t always the easiest thing. My actual prescription from the provider was to go on a hike that weekend, and report back to him that Monday to debrief. It’s hard to explain what exactly changed, but there is just something about nature.”

That experience led him to become an advocate for what he espouses now – outdoor activities turned into developmental opportunities through the inclusion of emotional intelligence exercises.

“It’s not just about the hike or climb,” Marshall said, who said all units need to make outdoors activities a part of their ongoing resiliency activities. “It’s about figuring out and being able to express how that hike or climb is changing you and challenging you. The status quo of what we are doing with resiliency isn’t working, and we need to change how we are trying to teach resiliency.

“A resilient mindset is one where, when faced with adversity, we go into the situation with the idea that not only am I going to get to the top, I will have enough energy at the end to keep going past that,” he added. “We need to be proactive instead of reactive, and getting your Airmen up and moving is the way to do that.”

Here in Alaska, any mental, medical, relationship, financial or other issue a troop might be facing can easily be compounded by the long days and months of winter, when it’s easy to go long stretches of time without seeing sunlight or getting enough quality outside time.

To make the most of their time here, JBER service members are encouraged to use the resources available to them. Through the Outdoor Adventure Program, personnel can take advantage of inexpensive and free trips, from backpacking to winter camping, and from ice climbing to white water rafting. Check out https://jberlife.com/oap/ for more information on getting involved with this.

For any Airman in need of help or someone to talk to, many resources are available:
Mental Health, 907-580-2181

Military and Family Life Consultant, 907-382-1407/0597/8909

Chaplain, 907-552-5762 during duty hours, 907-552-3000 after duty hours

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255