The power of connection

With my camera in hand, I weaved through the crowd of people standing on the hangar floor. It was the first time in my military career where uniforms were non-existent. There was just a crowd of people in Air Force shirts, hundreds of individuals with various backgrounds, gathering together as one team.

As I snapped photographs and captured short video clips of the conversations and laughter people were sharing, I began to understand what Gen. David L. Goldfein, chief of staff of the Air Force, intended for this day. He intended for there to be authentic connections — moments where rank did not come into play — moments where we could all connect and get to know each other on a personal level.

After the initial all-call we were divided into smaller groups for discussions. My group consisted of 30 or so Airmen from all different ranks and various career fields on base. Some of us were prior active duty, some were in different branches of service before choosing the Air National Guard, a couple were brand-new Guardsmen and others had been with the 115th Fighter Wing for more than 20 years.

We talked, sharing stories and perspectives freely for almost four hours straight. We aired our frustrations, discussed our strengths, and most importantly, built long-term connections with others we’d seldom, if ever, communicated with in the past.

We built friendships.

I lost my sister to suicide two years ago. Going into situations like this always make me a little nervous. How much focus will be on suicide? If I couldn’t stop my sister from taking her own life, and I knew everything about her, what could I do to stop someone else?

The answer to that question came to me clearly as we sat in that room, and although I wasn’t brave enough to share my personal story of loss in front of that group, I learned a ton from them.

What could have saved my sister or the 78 Airmen we’ve already lost this year in the Air Force alone?

Connection.

When someone commits suicide, it’s often because they feel like there is no other option. They feel like taking themselves out is the only thing they can do to end their pain. They feel like they are a burden on those around them, and they don’t want to cause their loved ones any more pain or trouble.

What they don’t realize is the unfathomable pain they leave behind in the hearts of those who love them. If they realized that, they wouldn’t take themselves out of the game.

Just think of how much impact you can make on someone’s life simply by inviting them into your office and catching up on the latest happenings in their life. Think about the relationships you could grow, the friendships you could foster, the lives you could save by taking one simple action — connecting with your Airmen.

We can’t save everyone’s lives, I’m well aware of that. I wasn’t in the right place at the right time to save my sister. But, what if someone else had been? What if some stranger on the street that day could’ve smiled and said ‘hi’ or asked her how her day was going? Think about the difference that could’ve made.

In our society we keep our heads down in our phones. We’re so worried about keeping up with our social media profiles that we tend to forget there are real people sitting in the desks around us. We’re so worried about ourselves and our own lives that we forget to ask others about theirs. We forget that they could potentially be going through the same things we are, or that they could’ve gone through similar situations and could offer advice. We forget that they may be yearning for real connection when they come to drill once a month because they don’t get a chance to talk out their problems or share their wins with anyone else during the rest of the month.

In the day-to-day grind, we forget the most important part of being on this team. Being a part of the 115th Fighter Wing means we have a gigantic family, more than 1,000 family members to take care of. If we truly only know the five people we work with, we’re missing out on a ton of lifelong friendships.

This chief of staff mandated stand-down day was phenomenal. I’m grateful I had the chance to listen to and speak with my fellow Airmen. I’m grateful I had the chance to implement a plan to build more connection in my own office and with Airmen across the base.

Whether you spend time individually with your team members or hold morning ‘coffee talks’ with all your Airmen at once, just make sure you’re doing something to build connection. At least once a month, find a way to ensure your fellow Airmen feel valued.

Connect with anyone and everyone you possibly can. Say ‘hi’ and greet others with a smile every chance you get. Taking the time to build better relationships will enhance your life, it will enhance others’ lives, and most importantly, building that connection could give someone who’s thinking about ending their life, just one more reason not to.

About Tech. Sgt. Andrea F. Rhode

Tech. Sgt. Andrea F. Rhode is a photojournalist for the 115th Fighter Wing in Madison, Wisconsin.