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Everyone needs a Wingman

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. George Johnson
  • 311th airlift squadron commander
My deployment nearly broke me last year. It had been a long time since I felt the way I felt that day. As many of you know, the pace is non-stop out there. You lose any real sense of the days of the week as they all run together. Since the war doesn't stop for the weekends, I only had a day or two where I didn't go to work for at least some portion of it.

The grind becomes routine; wake up, workout, eat, work, eat, work, eat, work, sleep. Mixed in with that are the interactions you have with the people you work with and that is what saved me that day.

There was no single event that made that day catastrophic. Tuesdays were my normal meeting days and getting through it, although challenging, was not difficult. But that day it unexpectedly filled up with several things. Nothing huge, just a few unplanned distractions and headaches. A few extra rocks in the rucksack.

By lunchtime, I had two meetings added to my afternoon which I had planned on spending on preparing for my first mission into Iraq the next day. These meetings were going to be a problem since they were going to consume the better part of my afternoon.

My standards are high, and I didn't want to step to a mission that I wasn't prepared for. I sat through the meetings and felt the pressure and worry start to build.

By the time I walked out of the last meeting it was late in the afternoon, I had plenty left to do and needed to make it back for another meeting at 4 p.m. Now I was running out of time and really stressing. I got back to ops and had this overwhelming sense of worry and unpreparedness. My head was not in the game, and I knew I wasn't the best crew to be sent out for the mission the next day. I had no idea how I was going to get everything done.

I called the operations officer, and I asked him to find 1st Lt. Phil Stewart who had just landed earlier and was not scheduled for a mission the next day. He had been to this location in Iraq the week before with the same crew. I asked Lieutenant Stewart if he could go for me tomorrow. That was the first time I have asked someone to do my job for me because I wasn't ready. Lieutenant Stewart said "no problem." I confessed to everyone that I felt overwhelmed and needed to come off the mission.

Once I made that decision, my stress level dropped and things were suddenly OK. After the meeting, I went back and got everything ready for the best crew we had. I took the time to get caught up and made it back to chow with the group. The operations officer told me not to worry about coming to work the next day, he could handle the mandatory slides and meeting that day. I dropped off a redeployer in the middle of the night for her flight home and picked up her replacement three hours later. It was another bad night for sleep. I slept in a little later for a change and went to breakfast with several folks who were going to the office. I told them I would be up there after going to the gym. They told me not to worry about it. Back at my room, I set my watch for 1 p.m. and went back to bed. And that was nice.

You will not be surprised--the war pressed on that day without me. After I woke up, I headed in to the office and found everything where it needed to be. The crew got the mission done as expected. I looked at the scheduling board to see how the week was going to shape up. There on next Thursday beside my name someone had written "GTL" at 9:30 a.m. GTL stands for Gym, Tan, Laundry and is the acronym the young guys use to describe the occasional down day where you don't worry about ops. My guys were looking out for me. I smiled and knew I was back on track.

Work and life can sometimes overwhelm us all. Sometimes it is something big, but it can often be all the little things that wear a person down. After almost 90 days of the grind, I had started to wear down with the weight of the rucksack. In the end, I was glad I made the decision to ask for help. No one knew how I was doing until I spoke up. I was really glad I worked with great people that I could count on and were ready to help when I needed it.