Behind the mask

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Maeson Elleman
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs

In many ways, they’re not just screens; they’re shields.

Masks are purpose-built for countless situations, protecting wearers from perceptible and imperceptible dangers alike. Out of all their many uses, one such application stands apart from the rest, giving the wearer a shield not only from physical danger – but also allowing a way to hide in plain sight.

For a lot of people in the military, this accessory is a second-nature addition to the uniform they wear everyday. Whether hiding an emotional response to a short-notice tasking, unruly supervisor or burnout from the daily grind, these masks allow members to put on an entirely different face from reality, a facade used to hide an internal struggle.

“Our mental health is really molded by society,” said Capt. Crystal Ditto, 52nd Health Care Operations Squadron Mental Health element chief. “Being in the military, it is a completely different culture. For us to adapt to the culture, to our society, we have to have a mask.”

Ditto may now be a licensed clinical social worker, but that wasn’t always the case. She first enlisted in the early years following 9/11, but earned her undergraduate degree in sociology and commissioned a decade later.

In her time in the Air Force, she has undergone plenty of her own stressors while also working to help others address their own.

“I was a prior cop,” Ditto said. “I came in in 2002. I lost many friends to suicide. I just kind of saw how the system is broken, and I wanted to try to be part of that bridge.”

Tech. Sgt. Nephi Marston, the noncommissioned officer in charge of Mental Health, said as an NCO and Mental Health professional, he’s more than familiar with the mask himself.

With a command construct that almost discourages leaders to be vulnerable, Marston said it can become even more difficult or isolating for people in society who feel they need to support others – a concept he knows all too well as someone who works at Mental Health.

“Whether we realize it or not, we’re putting on a mask,” said Marston. “There’s a mask I wear at work; there’s a mask I wear at home; there’s a mask I wear with just myself when nobody’s around. The mask I wear at work is tough. I’m human just like the next man. I have raw emotions and challenges and things that I haven’t maybe said or advocated for myself for.

“It can feel like you’re alone in the fight,” Marston continued. “They say, ‘You’re an NCO, and you need to be the example.’ I think being that example is being vulnerable, taking off that mask at the right times, around the right people. Your troops don’t have to know what you’re going through.”

Ditto and Marston both agreed that talking about removing the mask is often easier said than done. Still, they said the path begins with self-reflection and understanding, and ends in building relationships of trust and support.

“One thing I learned through my own journey: The hardest part of taking off that mask and beginning treatment, are the three words: I need help,” Marston said. “When you say that out loud to another person…that’s when you can begin. It doesn’t get easier, but it becomes more bearable, more manageable.”

“Before we can help anybody else with theirs, truthfully, we have to know ourselves,” Ditto added. “We have to know what’s happening behind our own. With that, I think the turn I’ve seen over the 20 years, people come into Mental Health more proactively. That’s very imperative because we’re able to do a lot of therapeutic work leaning forward and preparing for one’s career versus a dumpster fire and trying to save someone’s career. I think that has been very helpful for the culture as well. It’s just going to take time.”

Many times, maintaining resilience is often a reactive process, and many times the investment in healing comes in response to a bad situation. While Ditto said she supports tactical pauses bases have employed in the past to combat immediate resiliency concerns, she said that can’t be the only treatment.

“We can have all the resiliency days, all the awareness months, all the beautiful checkmarks,” Ditto said, “but [not] until people really start to let down their own mask and share their story, will people feel safe.”


Spangdahlem Helping Agencies:
Chapel: 452-6711 (06565-61-6711)
Mental Health: 452-8285 (06565-61-8285)
Military Family Life Counselor: +49 151-2208-8985 / +49 151-2816-3603 

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