Storytellers draws crowd, unites Air Commandos

U.S. Air Force Maj. Ahave Brown, 27th Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander, shares his story from growing up on the streets of Baltimore, M.D., to leading a squadron at a Storytellers luncheon April 15, 2015 at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. Brown spoke of his transformation at the hands of several strong mentors and learning experience who helped shape him into the person he is today. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Shelby Kay-Fantozzi)

U.S. Air Force Maj. Ahave Brown, 27th Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander, shares his story from growing up on the streets of Baltimore, M.D., to leading a squadron at a Storytellers luncheon April 15, 2015 at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. Brown spoke of his transformation at the hands of several strong mentors and learning experience who helped shape him into the person he is today. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Shelby Kay-Fantozzi)

U.S. Air Force Capt. Martin Barnes, 27th Special Operations Wing chaplain, prompts Air Commandos to consider how they relate to a story of resilience at a Storytellers luncheon April 15, 2015 at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. Barnes encouraged audience members to connect their own stories to the stories of speakers onstage throughout the event. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Shelby Kay-Fantozzi)

U.S. Air Force Capt. Martin Barnes, 27th Special Operations Wing chaplain, prompts Air Commandos to consider how they relate to a story of resilience at a Storytellers luncheon April 15, 2015 at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. Barnes encouraged audience members to connect their own stories to the stories of speakers onstage throughout the event. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Shelby Kay-Fantozzi)

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Commanders’ calls and annual online briefings are full of references to resiliency – a concept that encourages seeking help, communicating personal needs and maintaining hope in the face of hardship. Two non-commissioned officers created a tool in 2012 at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, that brings a novel approach to resiliency training: don’t call it training.

In its first run at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, Storytellers, an event where real Air Commandos tell real stories of personal triumph over adversity, drew a standing room only crowd to the Landing Zone April 15.

“We all complete Air Force resiliency training once a year, and my first-term Airmen go through an 8-hour day of resiliency training, but we find that this just sticks with people more,” said Master Sgt. Joshua Watts, 27th Special Operations Force Support Squadron career assistance advisor. “At Storytellers, you get to hear from someone about the toughest times they ever had, and how they made it through.”

The atmosphere in the Landing Zone’s Escape Room was transformed into an environment reminiscent of a café hosting an open mic night. People grabbed lunch, ate among friends and colleagues at tables with no assigned seating and turned their eyes to the stage as the program began and the room went dark.

“The setting of the event was crucial,” Watts said. “The environment was set to give people a relaxed and informal vibe. It kept the focus on really listening to our speakers’ stories.”

The event, a brainchild of Senior Master Sgt. Lee Hoover, public affairs advisor to the Chief Master Sgt. Of the Air Force, and Tech. Sgt. Kitsana Dounglomchan, 27th SOFSS first-term airmen’s course instructor, was a response to a question posed by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welch III, who asked, “Every Airman has a story. What’s yours?”

“The question is not just what your story is,” said Capt. Martin Barnes, 27th Special Operations Wing chaplain. “The question is also how you connect with the stories you see onstage. I think that really gets to General Welch’s spirit and intent from when he first made that statement, that every Airman has a story.”

Months of preparation went into carving out a time and space where Air Commandos could take the time to focus on each other’s stories and consider what Welch’s question meant to them.

“We had a great team working together since the beginning of February on the whole project,” Watts said. “Sergeant Dounglomchan helped me get this event off the ground, and Chaplain Barnes funded the event by making it chaplain-hosted.”

Barnes emceed the luncheon, stepping onstage after each 15-minute story to ask everyone in attendance to reflect on what they had just heard and consider what they had in common with the speaker.

“My job was to prompt people, ‘where do you see the resiliency here?’” Barnes said. “Instead of lecturing about it, I just gave people a minute to think about it. It’s something we all probably do every day. I said at the event, we’re normal people in an abnormal situation asked to do abnormal things and to make it all look normal. That’s a huge task, so Air Commandos call on their resiliency all the time.”

The wide range of speakers at the event helped to assure that every audience member could see themselves in the stories they heard, no matter how extraordinary.

“Whether a story is coming from a superintendent, an Air Force Cross recipient, a civilian or a squadron commander, people can relate to it,” said Watts. “That’s because everyone has a story. These people, our speakers, have been there. They have gone through the same stuff you might have gone through.”

The team behind the event worked with speakers to strike a balance between harrowing stories and an overall spirit of hope and resilience.

“Our job was to create a space where people felt safe telling their stories in context and a space where people felt safe listening to those stories,” Barnes said. “There are certain elements that we control, but there are other elements that the event drives itself. It’s part impromptu, part extemporaneous, part scripted. I think that’s what makes it so brilliant.”

Both Watts and Barnes measured the event’s success by its high attendance and by the interest audience members showed in speakers’ paths to happy and healthy lives following their experiences.

“The event wasn’t really for us, it was for our audience and our storytellers” said Watts. “We planned for 100 people to come, and had 160 show up. That was absolutely overwhelming. The tables filled, then the extra chairs filled, and finally we were at standing room.”

Watts stated that the planning team is eager to keep hosting the forum on base and to see how it grows and evolves over time.

“Now that we’ve had our first Storytellers at Cannon, the buzz is out there,” Watts said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we got even more people next time.”

Barnes expressed his excitement for the shape that the event could take in the future.

“Any future Storytellers events at Cannon will be similar, but they won’t be the same,” said Barnes. “This was a great kickoff. I would like to see it spawn out into the squadron or even flight level, and to generate more intention at every level to give respect to each other.”

According to Barnes, applying the Storytellers concept on a smaller scale could lead to more effective and fulfilling communication and feedback between coworkers.

“Often, I see Airmen who struggle with not feeling very respected in their duty sections,” Barnes said. “Storytelling could be the avenue for section chiefs or commanders to set up their own space for troops to tell their stories. That could break through prejudices and assumptions if it happens on a regular basis.”

Barnes stated that no matter how Storytellers might change in the future, its main focus will always be on cultivating resilience in Air Commandos.