HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – Fourteen specialists here have the privileged responsibility of ensuring that approximately 20,000 civilian employees stay focused on the base’s many vital missions.
While the job descriptions of these employee wellness specialists—better known as Wingman Advocates—state that they focus on civilians, they will assist anyone to include military personnel, contractors and family members.
“We want to give our employees the best support so they can continue to do the mission,” said 748th Supply Chain Management Group Wingman Advocate Andrew Kalinen. “If something is happening in their life that’s affecting the job or the job is affecting their personal life, we want to be proactive and assist as soon as possible. So if there’s something they need, we can find the resources either on or off base as fast as possible.”
The Wingman Advocates here are very capable of handling the myriad of people issues that come with a large workforce, and they have access to resources that others might not have.
“The diversity of our team, I think, in knowledge and experience is fantastic,” said Kalinen. “We have a brand new holistic Wingman Advocate who’s a chaplain by trade. We have former first sergeants and people with mental health backgrounds. You name it, we’ve got it. We don’t give up and we’ll figure it out.”
No two days are alike
Kalinen never knows what to expect when he arrives to work. People could be lined up outside his door waiting to see him, or he could be out on a “walk around” in his unit when he’ll suddenly get a call to deal with someone in distress.
“We’re 24/7. We don’t stop working,” he said. “We have someone on call at all times so they can call our number and get someone to help. And it’s not just the crises, it’s anything. If you’re having financial difficulties or marriage difficulties, you name it, we’ll take on anything and do our best to assist.”
Each work area on base is different for the assigned Wingman Advocates. For example, the work environment is much different for Kalinen, whose employees mostly work at desks in cubicles, as compared to the Wingman Advocates who work in maintenance areas.
While some days are more hectic than others, every day brings a new learning experience and fulfillment. According to Kalinen, being a Wingman Advocate does not result in a lot of tangible recognition but it is meaningful, nonetheless. Their satisfaction comes in the form of mission successes performed by an effective, ready workforce.
“It’s unpredictable, it’s not boring,” he said. “It’s not something you do to seek reward. It’s rewarding in its own sense but not something you do to get rewarded.”
Asked what characteristics make for a good Wingman Advocate, Kalinen answered, “Patience, flexibility and resiliency. Resiliency is huge. You have to be resilient, you have to be able to take care of yourself.”
Building trust, being proactive
One common thread among Wingman Advocates is the time they spend in their assigned work areas meeting people, making connections, checking on employees’ well-being. According to Ogden Air Logistics Complex Wingman Advocate Program Manager Rita Roybal, Wingman Advocates must get to know the people they serve.
“On a daily basis, more than anything, their job is to get out into the organization that they serve so people get to know them, know who they are, know what they do,” she said. “Ultimately this builds trust so that if there’s an issue that they’re [employees] concerned about either with themselves or someone that they work with, they can approach the Wingman Advocate in a casual way and express their concern.”
Another thing in common among all Wingman Advocates is that they are proactive. Kalinen has been around long enough to notice a few trends and this enables his proactive posture. Interestingly, he attributes certain behaviors to time changes in the spring and fall.
“We see a lot more depression and motivation [issues],” he said. “Leave abuse happens because people don’t want to come in to work on Mondays so we deal with that a lot. When the weather gets warmer, a lot of relationship problems start heating up.”
This identification of stressors and trends is something that’s changed since the program’s early days. Then, it was more focused on simple social services. Now, it’s more about organizational development and proactively identifying issues that commanders and directors can act on.
“It’s not just ‘Here are some people that I’ve been helping,’” Kalinen said when talking about regular meetings with his host commander. “It’s ‘This is what I’m feeling within the squadron. These are some stressors.’”
Unique program is being noticed
The program began in October 2007 and is unique to Hill AFB. Roybal developed the program in an effort to stem what was at the time a high suicide rate here. After looking at the problem and exhausting existing resources, she determined that maintenance workers—suicides were most prevalent in maintenance organizations—were more comfortable with people they believed understood them, and felt it would be most helpful to have someone like a first sergeant to help resolve their issues.
“They [leaders and supervisors] are technically proficient but probably many of them have not done a lot with human behaviors,” she said. “The Wingman Advocate’s primary goal is to support the commanders and make sure their workforce has whatever resources they need so that they can keep their mind focused on the job instead of worrying about what’s going on at home.”
The base has had success in stemming the suicide problem and the mission today is being accomplished very effectively. Much of this improvement can be attributed to the employees who have accepted help via resources offered here—including Wingman Advocates—and the support of host commanders and directors.
“Wingman Advocates represent an integral part of our group and are an invaluable resource in resolving issues and concerns of our personnel, no matter how big or small,” said 309th Aircraft Maintenance Group Commander Col. Jon Eberlan. “Their presence, counsel and service is a huge force multiplier towards our group's mission accomplishment.”
Ogden Air Logistics Complex Commander Brig. Gen. Steven J. Bleymaier is a great supporter of the Wingman Advocate program.
During a recent commander’s summit at Air Force Materiel Command, he had the opportunity to talk about the program.
”Wingmen Advocates assist our leadership in building a more resilient, engaged workforce by making sure our civilian Airmen and their families know of and are connected to the multiple resources both on base and out in the community,” said Bleymaier. “Once employees get connected to assistance and are given tools to be more resilient, they can better focus on the mission.”
Bleymaier said Wingmen Advocates have brought positive change to his organization and its workforce.
“One big success is that since the Wingman Advocate program started, they have changed the organizational climate,” he said. “The stigma for seeking help has greatly diminished. I know first-hand of people whose lives have been significantly changed because of the direct involvement of a Wingman Advocate.”
Going forward, Bleymaier also believes that Wingman Advocates can benefit higher-level organizations across the Air Force.
“All people struggle with the same issues everywhere,” he said. “Having been a commander and utilizing first sergeants, I recognize the valuable role of having an individual to liaison between leaders and employees and ensuring employees have a knowledge of their resources, benefits and other programs, as well as keeping a pulse on the morale of the unit.”