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It's the most wonderful time of the year ... Maybe

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jason Lennen
  • 92nd Medical Operations Squadron Commander
The holidays are once again upon us (not enough shopping days 'til Christmas) and, as the classic Andy Williams song tells us, "It's the most wonderful time of the year."

While this may be true for many of us, it is unfortunately not the case for some of our fellow Airmen and civilian colleagues alike. This time of year can actually be the most difficult and dangerous couple pages on the calendar. Holiday blues, depression, seasonal affective disorder and inclement winter weather can individually or collectively hinder one's ability to "be of good cheer" during "the hap-happiest season of all." This time of year doesn't have a catchy name like the "101 Dreary & Dangerous Days of Winter," but it deserves our attention and action nonetheless.

We all encounter challenges and difficulties at various times during the rollercoaster ride of life. To a certain extent, these tough times are quite normal and should be expected. The holidays, however, sometimes turn normal challenges into problems, amplify preexisting problems and occasionally create new problems.

Many factors contribute to holiday blues and/or depression. Stress, changes in routines, expectations derived from a Norman Rockwell painting, financial woes, relationship problems, loss of loved ones and family separation are a few of the issues heightened during the holidays that may increase one's risk of having significant depressive symptoms. With "parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting and caroling out in the snow," how is anyone supposed to rest, relax and save some cash?

Deployments are a unique challenge encountered in military life that can predispose us to several of the aforementioned factors. Stress, changed routines and relationship problems can all be present, interact and amplify one another during deployment. Having deployed several times myself and spoken to many others who have also deployed, separation from family is widely considered the most difficult part of a deployment.

Separation from family during the holidays compounds this difficulty. Sure, the dining facility might warm your belly with a reasonably good turkey dinner and internet video calling might allow you to watch your children plow through a heap of gifts on Christmas morning, but it's simply not the same as being there. After all, holiday celebrations are considered by many to be a time of togetherness with friends and family, or, as Andy Williams tells us, a time "when loved ones are near."

Yet another factor that can add difficulty to our lives during the holidays is more related to the season than the holidays themselves. A condition called, seasonal affective disorder, fittingly abbreviated SAD, is a form of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. Since SAD is often associated with fewer hours of daylight, it is more common in northern states during the fall and winter months ... the holiday season at Fairchild, for example.

In addition to short winter days, our northern location also brings us a fair amount of inclement weather ... another potential danger to our people. Snow, ice and flying reindeer are all driving hazards of note (while I don't believe the mule deer on base fly, they can be a driving hazard as well). With the relatively high percentage of younger Airmen at Fairchild and roughly one-third of our active duty population turning over each summer, it's reasonable to assume there will be a few inexperienced winter drivers on the road here every holiday season.

The increasing rates of driving under the influence during this time of year and the increasing prevalence of texting while driving add further risk to an already dangerous situation. Winter weather also brings winter sports and winter sports bring winter sports injuries. The most recent addition to the winter sports list, although not yet approved for Olympic competition, is walking to and from your car in a slippery parking lot ... doing it with crutches or a baby in your hands adds an extra level of difficulty.

As you can see, the list of unique challenges present during this the holiday season is lengthy. This commentary is certainly not intended to be a holiday downer or to express displeasure with the Inland Northwest. I, for one, truly enjoy this time of year, this wing and this region of our great nation. The message is about awareness and action.

While you are going about your "holiday greetings and gay happy meetings," consider for a moment what may be going on in the minds and lives of the people with whom you interact on a daily basis. What dangers and difficulties might they be facing this holiday season? What can you do to help?

Five simple words, "How are you doing today?" This basic question can either be a casual greeting with little or no meaning or it can be the expression of true interest in the welfare of another human being. We sometimes ask this question as a matter of habit, often as we are speeding past someone on the street or in the hall. We don't expect, many times don't want, to hear an honest answer. Asking this question a second time or while looking someone in the eyes often yields a response other than an instinctual "fine, how are you?"

I recall, as a young second lieutenant, asking a staff sergeant in my duty section how she was doing one day. She told me, "You don't really want to know," and began crying uncontrollably, sharing details of her marital problems several minutes later when she realized I hadn't left. It turns out that another member of our squadron had asked the same question a few minutes earlier, but didn't stick around long enough to hear the answer. His good-mannered, habitual act made this young lady feel even worse about her situation.

Stop, look the people around you in the eyes and ask them, "How are you doing today?" with true interest and intent to listen and help. If you are the one facing challenging times, take advantage of one of the many support services available to you (e.g. Airman and Family Readiness, chapel, AADD, Air Force Aid, mental health, etc.). Ask a friend, coworker or family member for help, take your supervisor up on an offer to have a holiday meal at their house, accept the free ticket from your commander to attend the holiday party ... help comes in many forms and it is available in abundance at Fairchild AFB.

We recently completed our last wingman day of 2012, perfect timing to help build relationships and resiliency as we enter the holidays. Being a wingman is basically about an Airman taking care of another Airman, and you don't need a designated day to do it and to do it right. If you are blessed with "wonderful times" during this holiday season, be a good wingman and share some of the season's delights with a fellow Airman who may not be feeling the same. Care, concern or a simple act of kindness may be all it takes to make this holiday season "the most wonderful time" of their year.

Happy Holidays Team Fairchild!