Robert Wicks, Psy.D., professor of pastoral counseling at Loyola University Maryland, emphasized the importance of maintaining resilience and keeping perspective in his keynote address at the National Prayer Luncheon at Dover Air Force Base on Feb. 22.
More than 250 people attended the annual event, which is held on military bases across the country to bring together public, private, and military leadership to recognize the moral and spiritual values upon which the United States was founded. Wicks was asked to speak at the luncheon because he often works with helpers and healers in the military, most recently to counsel caregivers returning from combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has also lectured at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center and was an officer in the Marine Corps, so he understands the challenges faced by today’s military personnel.
“Being able to get together and hear Dr. Wicks speak was phenomenal,” said Col. Mark Camerer, commander of the 436th Airlift Wing and a senior officer at Dover AFB. “Many of our senior leaders can relate to the words he had to say.”
Wicks explained that while experiencing tragedy gives us perspective, keeping perspective after a tragedy is critical to regaining and building resiliency. He shared a number of anecdotes with the audience that demonstrated what happens when you lose perspective, including a personal story about his daughter who at a young age had to wear a brace for three years and eventually needed invasive surgery to correct a severe curve in her spine. Only a few months after the operation she was making a remarkably swift recovery and doctors removed her cast; a short time later she fell down a flight of stairs and wasn’t seriously injured, but the incident had a deep impact on Wicks because he thought the dark clouds has passed – he had lost perspective.
His words were particularly relevant for staff in the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center (AFMAO), headquartered at Dover AFB. AFMAO receives all of the remains of service members who have died or been killed overseas in combat and non-combat areas and repatriates newly discovered remains of service members who died in previous wars. The agency’s mortuary affairs division provides advice, guidance, and counseling both for its own personnel and the families of the fallen.
“Families and loved ones feel an unimaginable sense of loss after a combat death,” said Lt. Col. Dennis Saucier, senior chaplain in AFMAO. “We deal first hand with the grief of the families. We see them at the worst possible moments of their lives.”
Saucier’s line of work makes him and his colleagues especially vulnerable to secondary stress, the wear and fatigue on caregivers who are consistently tasked with helping others through extraordinarily traumatic times. Without a focus on self-care, said Wicks, caregivers risk losing themselves.
“In the end it’s not the amount of darkness in the world that matters, it’s not even the amount of darkness in ourselves that matters, it’s how we stand in that darkness,” Wicks told the audience during his address.
He gave everyone a place to start: take two minutes a day in silence, solitude, and wrapped in gratitude to center yourself in mindfulness or prayer.
That concept resonated with Senior Airman Areiel Wisner of Houston, Texas, who has done tours in Iraq and Qatar with the Air Force’s Traffic Management Office. She values setting aside two minutes a day for herself to help deal with the negative stress associated with the realities of a career in the military.
“The number one thing for me is sacrifice, sacrificing life, sacrificing family,” said Wisner. “It’s kind of strange when you see the people you went to high school with, the people you went to college with, and the things that they’re doing and you’re like ‘I can’t do that anymore.’”
Wisner is one of more than 3,500 active duty service members stationed at Dover AFB, which is home to both the 436th and 512th Airlift Wings. Those units have been responsible for numerous combat and humanitarian missions all over the world, from transporting equipment and personnel overseas in support of the war on terror to delivering critical resources and supplies to victims of the 2004 Indonesia tsunami, recent earthquakes in Iran and Pakistan, and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the home front. To strive for consistent quality in these and other operations, members of the Air Force focus on staying strong physically, mentally, socially, and perhaps most important of all, spiritually. That spiritual pillar makes the prayer luncheon a huge draw every year and Wicks’ expertise particularly appealing.
“Without spiritual strength, we will fail,” said Chaplain Joshua Rumsey, Air Force captain and master of ceremonies for the luncheon.
Col. Camerer presented Wicks with his officer’s coin at the close of the event. The Air Force tradition of carrying a coin dates back to World War II when airmen who had been shot down would use a unique coin to identify themselves in the French underground. In contemporary Air Force culture, the senior member of a unit carries a coin and offers it as a gesture of appreciation for excellence and performance.
“The brave men and women in the U.S. Air Force and all other branches of the military do so much for us that we don't even know about,” said Wicks. “It was and is an honor for me to serve them."
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