By Allison Kirschbaum

A policy change has been made for the airmen that will allow pilots to have at least 60 days of mental treatment without being revoked of their flight status; it aims to destigmatize airmen seeking care. Before the update, revealed in a May 1 press release, Air Force members will need a return-to-duty waiver to fly if they go on leave to seek mental help. This rule often leaves the pilots grounded for extended periods after seeking help or waiting for their diagnosis. However, the new policy will prioritize the Air Force mental health services; it eliminates the mandatory waiting time or “stabilization” period.

What Is the Impact of the New Policy?

The policy change will benefit Air Force medical care across the board who are seeking treatment for post-traumatic anxiety, stress, and other related conditions. It was made possible by the combined work and efforts of the Air Mobility Command’s Mental Health working group, aviation psychologists, flight surgeons, a panel of aircrew members, a specialized doctor from NASA, and pilot physicians who considered the potential updates to the Air Force mental health policies.

C-130J Super Hercules airlifter pilot, Maj. Jane Marlow led the working group and stated in the release that she also had delayed her Air Force mental health care. Marlow only paid attention to her issues when not in a non-flying assignment to avoid being grounded indefinitely.

She further stated that she had delayed seeking help like her peers. Marlow knew the consequences once she set up an appointment. However, the trauma care that she went through was life-changing and made her a better pilot, leader, and strong wingman due to the care she received. Regardless, Marlow still spends months in a non-flying status due to her diagnosis.

Delays in resuming flight status have harmed many careers in the past, hindering training and other opportunities. With the new change in Air Force medical care, there will no longer be a mandatory waiting period, plus flight surgeons can present a waiver without waiting for a pilot to return.

The Uniformed Services University studied Air Force suicide causes in 2020. Results showed that there were dozens of factors contributing to the 117 department-wide suicides that year. Thus including the "issues with mental health care access" and "stigma about Air Force mental health."

According to the Pentagon report in 2022, the number of service member-reported deaths increased from 331 in the previous year to 328 in 2021.

Impact of the New Air Force Medical Care

C-130J pilot Lt. Col. Sandra Salzman mentioned that being the group's pilot-physician has allowed her to pursue her experience as an advocate for the Air Force mental health. Salzman also added that the team's recommendations are based on a developing understanding of human reactions to stress and development through early treatment.

Further, in January 2022, the Air Mobility Command's working group was launched after Gen. Mike Minihan posted a photo of a mental health appointment on his calendar and added a caption, "Warrior heart. No stigma."

Minihan added that in 2023, the appointment had made the most difficult three days of his entire career while processing those challenging military service moments. He recalled that when someone packs a body on the ice at the back of a C-130, and it smells, you can immediately wash that off; that's something to deal with. That's something to deal with when you're at the Pentagon during 9/11. If your squadron is in Afghanistan and Iraq, supporting operations, and they moved hundreds of angels (dead U.S. troops), there is something that needs to be talked about.

The four-star general sparked further conversations about the role of Air Force mental health and mental care in the following years. Minihan even encouraged those who are suffering in silence to seek help.

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