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Feature Stories

NEWS | June 10, 2024

The 20th Medical Group: The Gateway to Resiliency

By Lt. Col. James Burnett

My life was saved by an Airman, not in combat or training, but at the 20th Medical Group (20th MDG) while stationed here at Shaw Air Force Base. If it were not for the time, care, and resources that my therapist provided me, I would not be here today. As an officer with more than 20 years on active-duty, including multiple combat tours, I have observed and supported subordinates, peers, and senior leaders in multiple instances where treatment was needed and facilitated by teams of professionals, including the team at the 20th MDG Mental Health Clinic. After my suicide attempt in January 2023, I took it upon myself to seek help and use what I have learned to help my team. I am eternally grateful for the dedication, expertise, and care these teams provide. My hope is that someone reading this article understands that it is possible to get help for themselves or a friend/loved one.

The 20th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron’s commander, Lt. Col. Jennifer "Jenn" Tomlinson,speaks clearly to the importance of their mission and roles in the fight to combat this readiness issue:

“I hope all our teammates feel comfortable reaching out for help when they need it. Our Mental Health Team here at the 20th MDG is incredible and always standing by to support, but each one of us can assist when it comes to mental health,” said Tomlinson “Whether it is a listening ear, being vigilant when someone is not themselves, checking in on our people regularly or ensuring they get to the resources they need, every day we all have the opportunity to make a difference.”

While suicide rates have not diminished – the fight to improve services, remove societal stigmas, and build awareness have greatly increased. The fight to build resiliency and save lives happens daily at installations like Shaw AFB across the globe. In these often underfunded and undermanned facilities, you will find teams of Airman, Soldiers, Marines, and/or Sailors that perform miracles for less, keeping our families and teammates healthy. Their support enables the forces of this nation to be ready to deploy and support globally at a moment’s notice. With overseas rotations and deployments remaining at the fore, the specter of suicidal ideations and attempts remains very real.

My case serves as a solid example of the system working as a team to support the service member. From the moment my counselor recommended an intensive inpatient program, my commander and first sergeant (Col. Thomas Caldwell & SFC Erichsen) ensured that I received all available resources – support that continued after Col. Johannes Castro assumed command. Ms. Maria Mola from the Ready and Resilient (R2) program at USARCENT captured lessons learned and provided additional support upon my return. Remember, the system only works if you seek help.

The 20th Medical Group's mission is to support the 20th Fighter Wing. In 2023, the Mental Health Clinic facilitated more than 13,000 appointments (1). However, in addition to the 20th Fighter Wing, they also provide services for United States Air Force Central (AFCENT) and United States Army Central (USARCENT), both three-star headquarters that add a sizable population to the patient pool for the facility. The total population amounts to nearly 20,000 people (8200 service members and approximately 12,000 family members) (2). They maintain a high-interest list (HIL) used to support high-risk personnel. On average there are 44 personnel a month for those personnel that require additional daily support. 20% of the HIL is comprised of Soldiers from USARCENT (3). Despite this sizable population, the 20th MDG makes a difference daily. The clinic accomplishes all of this while enduring manning shortages, supporting permanent change of station (PCS) season, and the post-holiday season surge as personnel return to base.

As reported by the Department of Defense (DoD) in 2022, 492 service members died by suicide (4). The sad truth is that the number reported for veteran suicides is even higher with 6,146 veterans taking their own lives in 2020 alone according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (5).

While the DoD and VA have made great strides to provide support to service members and their families, the very real personal and anticipated public stigma of seeking help remains a barrier to treatment for many. These barriers prevent approximately 60% of the veteran population that needs help from seeking it out (6). Here is what you should know if you need help or know someone who does - remember the first step is the hardest:

1) Prevention/Early Intervention begins with you - sleep, exercise, nutrition/diet, and social support are key ingredients for self-care. (see the Wellness Tool).
2) Help comes in many forms, friends, family, chaplains, and counselors can comprise the basis of a healthy emotional support team.
3) If your Wingman, Battle Buddy, friend, or family member needs support - listen to them actively and get them to a professional as quickly as possible if needed.

The 20th MDG and the seasoned professionalism of my organizational leadership made all the difference in my treatment and support plan. One can not be present for others if one is not showing up for oneself on a daily basis. The discipline we apply to our daily military duties can actually serve as a construct for a positive and productive mental outlook when channeled into self-care and development.

1-3: Provided by 20th MDG