What's behind the smile?

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- A few years ago, I wrote an article about smiling.  I tried to make it witty and funny, in an attempt to enlighten the hearts of Airmen in Korea.  I ranted on how smiles were contagious and made people look more confident and attractive.  I argued that forcing yourself to smile can literally change your mood.  

I have no doubt that a smile is a powerful tool.  Anyone that knows me knows I love to smile and I like to make others smile.  However, recent events, both professionally and personally, opened my eyes to the fact that many people hide behind a smile. 

We are trained to detect when someone is going through a tough time.  We scout out sad or withdrawn Airmen and look for behaviors outside of their norm.  We are taught to lend an ear, provide support and offer available resources, regardless of service affiliation or status.  We are programmed to ask the tough questions that can help us "take care of Airmen."  That is the right thing to do.

Recently, I dealt with the passing of an Airman which shook my unit to its knees.  The member was very social and had many friends which made the situation even harder to understand.  My role as a first sergeant placed me in a position I was not ready for.  I was charged with piecing together the last few days of my Airman's life to see what we missed. 

How could we have changed the outcome of this tragic story?  I quickly realized that my Airman was dealing with some hard issues and nobody had any idea they existed.  My Airman hid behind a smile.

I can relate.  In a weird series of events, I found myself in an all-inclusive two-week stay in an Intensive Care Unit.  I wanted to comfort my worried parents and forced my husband to take smiling selfies with me from my hospital bed.  I smiled to hide the pain and tried to engage in full conversations with my visitors to eliminate awkward or uncomfortable feelings.  I saved hospital meal cookies for my daughter so she would be excited about visiting me in such a scary place. 

The reality of it all was that I was terrified beyond belief and uncertain about my future.  Through it all, I hid behind my smile.

In today's busy Air Force, we devote our time to lead and mentor those that ask for our help, whether it's through verbal or nonverbal communication, or under positive or negative circumstances.  We are dedicated to groom young personnel to replace us and help them reach their personal and professional goals.  We do this very well. 

Nevertheless, sometimes we tend to forget about those that seem to have it together; those that are always smiling.  A simple smile can be used as affirmation to highlight the good things or a façade masking the bad things. 

I challenge you to find out what's behind the smile.