A recent author in this column urged us to "exit our comfort zones." This week, I am inviting all of us to do just that and to become what I call an "Exceptional Wingman." For context, I invite you to imagine trying to do such simple tasks as getting out of bed, getting dressed, making breakfast, going shopping, brushing your teeth or hugging your loved ones without the use of your arms or legs. Try to picture what your life might be like if you couldn't see or hear. Visualize your daily routine if you had a disability such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or autism.
At Team Hill, many of us have family members with one or more of these disabilities, and certainly we all know somebody who does, even if they haven't told us of their disability. In the Air Force we call these "special needs" and call our disabled family members "exceptional family members." In the Air Force today, there are more than 14,000 active duty families with special needs. Here at Hill Air Force Base we have at least 300 active duty special needs families, and at least that number of civilian employees with special needs family members. Look around your squadron, flight, division or directorate. Do you recognize these Team Hill Airmen? Ask yourself if you have spent the time, as an Exceptional Wingman, to get to know them and to try to understand what life is like for them.
Try to imagine how challenging your daily routine would be if your son or daughter, wife or husband, couldn't talk, dress, bathe or walk or perceive what most of us call "reality" because of a completely different mental lens. Try to imagine how extraordinarily difficult life is for some of these families. Think getting a babysitter for Saturday night is tough for most of us? Imagine finding one who can care for a child with severe physical disabilities. Think being married is a walk in the park? Try holding a marriage together when you literally never get a break from taking care of the severe physical or behavioral needs of your child, 24/7 365 days a year.
On March 31, Hill AFB hosted its first Families with Special Needs Summit. We brought together more than 250 of our special needs family members with 67 Northern Utah disability and adaptive program service providers. In 10 brainstorming sessions, we identified more than 200 potential barriers which inhibit a family's full access to critical resources and quality of life. We distilled these into 45 prioritized issues that the base is working to resolve over the next two years.
Significantly, the attendees made crystal clear that many of them feel isolated from the broader Air Force community -- because most community members don't understand life with special needs and they are concerned about real or perceived institutional stigmas. As a medical group commander and as a dad of a special needs child, I am telling you that, yes, this isolation and those stigmas exist. Our Airman's Creed says, "I will never leave an Airman behind and I will not fail." The uniformed Airmen are America's warriors, sworn to give their lives in our nation's defense. We're not used to admitting any weaknesses to anyone, including our spouses, supervisors, commanders or our Wingman. We "do not fail," and unfortunately our culture and society continue to partially associate disabilities and special needs with weakness and failure. They're not. They are part of the human condition, and facing and overcoming these additional hurdles is in no way a failure.
Team Hill members with special needs families -- active duty, government civilian and Reserve component -- I urge you to openly discuss your personal circumstances with your co-workers and supervisors. They may have had no direct experience with persons with disabilities. Your experience will help them better appreciate the additional challenges you face and how they can be Exceptional Wingmen to you. As a "Special Needs" dad who resisted for many years the facts in his son's case, I also encourage all of you Airmen who know in your heart that "something is different," but refuse to admit it, to look in the mirror and consider what is most important. I know now, that my son and my family are most important, and I know that the Air Force can and will take care of my family and my career. The Air Force cannot provide to you and your child all the available support resources if you haven't enrolled your family member in the Exceptional Family Member Program.
Commanders, directors, first sergeants and supervisors you have a duty and a responsibility to know and understand these challenges so that you can ensure the morale and welfare of all unit personnel. Use the resources available to you -- the key spouses, the special needs navigator, the medical group and the Airman and Family Readiness Center -- to better understand the needs of the special needs families in your units. In so doing, you will be better prepared to ensure that all Team Hill Airmen can perform their mission with the sure knowledge that leadership fully supports them and their family.
Another recent author offered us this quote, "Nobody cares how much you know ... until they know how much you care about them." As Airmen and Wingmen, we have a duty to watch out for our fellow Warriors and the Team Hill family. As "Exceptional Wingmen," we all can step outside of our comfort zones, and become actively engaged in taking care of our special needs families.
For more information about the base's Special Needs Resource Center, please contact Tammy Custer at 801-586-4735, or the 75th Medical Group Special Needs Office at (801) 777-1237.