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Lighten your backpack: tips to overcome deployment challenges

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Sean Evans
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

Reserve Citizen Airmen and their families received deployment advice from Chief Master Sgt. Eric Smith during a virtual Yellow Ribbon event May 15-16.

Smith, a veteran of five deployments, served as the event’s keynote speaker.

He is the chief enlisted manager of command and special staff at Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command, Robins Air Force Base, Georgia.

“We all carry a backpack, and we pick up items such as a spouse, kids, college and all our life experiences and we put them in that backpack. That's called living life,” Smith said. “You may pick up more items than you can carry, and that forces you to put your backpack down.”

He provided seven recommendations to help deployers and those returning from deployment decide what they should remove from their “backpacks.”

Don’t isolate yourself – Make sure you have a support system. Airmen often isolate themselves and fail to reestablish themselves into their environment. Isolation causes a breakdown of communication and a lack of trust. When you start feeling that way, reach out and take isolation out of your backpack.

Tell people how you really feel inside – Some people have two faces; the faces they want you to see and the real one. This should not be the case in personal relationships. Since technology allows us to communicate frequently, Airmen and their families should use it to tell their loved ones back home how they really feel.

Find inspiration when it’s hard to – When Smith returned from his second deployment, he was laid off from his civilian job. He had to pawn his TV, his mortgage was five months overdue and his electric was cut off. Yet he continued to go to school because he knew they couldn’t take his education away. He said he tried to find ways to inspire himself and told himself everything was going to be okay.

Engage adversity with determination – When you really want something bad enough and you don't have what you need internally, have external support as well. In this case, Yellow Ribbon is there to support you with the staff and the resources that they have. Smith said that if, “lack of determination is in your backpack, take it out!”

How you see yourself – Where you are today, and what you may become in the future is long-term motivation. Short-term motivation is useful at times, but long-term motivation will get you to your goals.

Never let circumstance define you – We all have different ways of getting there and everyone has special circumstances in their journey. As Henry Ward Beecher once said, “We should not judge people by their peak of excellence, but by the distance they have traveled from the point where they started.”

Build your own traditions – If you're married, build your own traditions. If you're single, consider spending time with other people in your unit and build your own traditions. I want you to think about what traditions your family and friends share with you before you deploy and after you come back. If you don't have one in place, the time is now to start building one.

First Lt. Ronald Fugate, a cyberspace officer with the 914th Communications Squadron, 914th Air Refueling Wing, said he appreciated Smith’s advice.

“I have always understood the importance of changing what you can, letting go the things you can't and trying to know the difference,” Fugate said. “This is why Chief’s message of "take it out" resonated with me so much. We have to lighten our load by letting go of the negative things holding us down.”

Smith has spoken at more than 30 Yellow Ribbon events attended by more than 20,000 Reserve Citizen Airmen and their families.

“When I came into the Air Force, we didn't have Yellow Ribbon. We just went straight back to work and people would have problems,” Smith said. “The yellow ribbon is there to put resources in place and build up airman resiliency so they can stay longer.”

For Smith, how one responds to a challenge is crucial. Resilience and readiness are strengthened by overcoming the challenges in our lives that impact our readiness.

“If all we see is obstacles, we will never see opportunities within those obstacles,” said Smith. “Once you've lightened your backpack, you can travel farther because you're stronger. Pick up your backpack and carry on your journey.”