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Key Spouse Highlights Importance of Connection

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kalee Sexton

Dr. Sonny Kelly is an Air Force veteran, college professor, Key Spouse and someone who lost his brother to suicide. When Col. Douglas Stouffer, commander of the 512th Airlift Wing at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, heard he was going to speak at a Key Spouse training session in January, he opened the event to a wider audience so more people could hear Kelly’s message on the importance of connection.

“We are all trying to find a way to survive and thrive in an age where trauma is the standard,” Kelly, who serves as a Key Spouse for the 512th Memorial Affairs Squadron, said during his presentation at the January unit training assembly. “I think too many of us are trying to succeed and survive and thrive on our own, and if we can get together and find rhythms and ways to connect, that is our answer for hope.”

After losing his brother, who also served in the Air Force, to suicide, Kelly said he wanted to create ways to help others communicate more effectively by “reframing and reclaiming” interpersonal relationships.

He described a time from his youth when he cut himself on a barbed wire fence and how it left him with scars on his hands. “Scars are not a reminder of your pain, but a reminder that you survived,” he said.

Kelly said the past few years have been especially traumatic for everyone, and people should acknowledge the hurt so they can get to a better place.

“We’ve all been through trauma, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he said.

Kelly started his presentation with a poem, “The Cold Within” by James Patrick Kinney. It tells the story of six people sitting around a dying fire. They each hold a stick, but bound by biases and distrust for one another, no one offers his stick to keep the fire going. The poem ends by saying they didn’t die from the cold outside, but from the coldness within.

“They each hold their stick back, just like people who hold back their gifts or pieces of who they are,” he said.

He encouraged leaders to be vulnerable and lead by example, quoting Theodore Roosevelt who said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

He also emphasized the importance of truly hearing and understanding lower-ranking colleagues, outlining three interpersonal needs required to maintain a positive relationship: control, inclusion and affection.

Additionally, he noted how simple, consistent and repeatable rhythms build trust. For example, if a leader consistently checks in on an Airman every day, that Airman will trust that the leader cares about his well-being, Kelly said.

Emily Repport, a 512th Civil Engineer Squadron Key Spouse who is leading her family while her husband is deployed, said she is glad she attended the presentation.

“Sonny’s presentation gave me the boost I needed to get through the deployment,” she said. “I had been wondering if I would even laugh again over the next several months. This changed my whole mind frame, and I feel much better.”

(Sexton is assigned to the 512th Airlift Wing public affairs office.)