Wingman: more than a cliche

Wingman Resources

Wingman Resources

(Editor's note: At the request of the author, his name and those of the parties involved in this story have been removed.)

What is it to be a Wingman? One may think it's an overused cliché, but I'm here to tell you that being a Wingman is more than a term we place on a friend, peer or supervisor.

Several years ago, I had the privilege to serve with a remarkable NCO that blessed me with a new understanding of what being a good Wingman was all about. Although young and relatively fresh out of Airman Leadership School, this young NCO carried out his supervisory responsibilities with text book precision. He brilliantly recognized behavioral changes in his Airman, upheld standards and acted on his "gut instincts" when things didn't seem right. In the end a life was saved. Here's the abbreviated version of the story.

One morning this young staff sergeant received a text message from his subordinate; a young intelligent airman 1st class who had actually left a prestigious university early to serve her country. She was an outstanding student, striving for a medical degree and was well on her way through her third year. As her life took on personal struggles, she joined the Air Force to get away from the very things that were dragging her down. Unfortunately for her, her first duty assignment landed her at the very location she originally fled. Despite the added stress in her life, she did her job with a smile and her future was very bright. Then one morning our staff sergeant got a text message from his Airman: "not feeling good, I'm not coming in today."

The staff sergeant, surprised at her text, responded with "come in and see a doc" and was already thinking of how to counsel her about her bold decision to not come in. He recognized that this wasn't her normal behavior, but also knew that he needed to peel the layers back to get to the bottom of this. She never responded to his text message, so he called her. She didn't reply. After a short time; and now a little upset, he tried to call her again. Again, there was no response.

As the staff sergeant grew more and more concerned, he focused his attention on face-to-face interaction. He traveled to her home. Her car was in the driveway, but no one answered the door. After continual knocks at the door and several rings of the doorbell, his concern grew to a fear that something was wrong. After talking to family members from his cell phone, a friend of the family met the staff sergeant at the Airman's home to open the door.

When they gained access to the home, they called out her name over and over. Her uniform was on a chair by the front door and there was other evidence that led them to believe that she was still there. As they entered the bathroom, they discovered her lying in an overflowing bathtub. With the water discolored with her own blood, they quickly realized that she had cut her wrist in an attempt to take her own life.

Thankfully, our story does have a happy ending. The NCO and his supervisor got there in time. They got her the immediate and long-term medical attention she needed. In the following months, the staff sergeant stood by her side as she pieced her life back together. Today that young lady, now separated, is back in school focusing her efforts towards the very dreams she set out to achieve before she joined the Air Force: the dream of becoming a doctor. She went through a dark time in her life, and if not for the timely actions of her supervisor, I believe that she would not be alive today.

So when the term Wingman comes up in discussions within your unit, it's important to note that the definition will take on many forms based on each of your own experiences. This particular NCO recognized a change in his Airman's behavior. The text he received raised a red flag. He upheld standards by pursuing the perplexing text message. His persistence and growing concern for her safety and well-being triggered his supervisory instincts. And finally; rather than turning a blind eye to the text message, he continued to dig for answers. Not only did this NCO epitomize the Wingman concept; on this day, his leadership saved a life.