Dangerous missions. Extended periods of time away from friends and family. Physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding work. These aspects of military service, among others, seem impossible to overcome, yet over one million men and women navigate these challenges in service to our nation. How? According to Col Tim Hale, USAF (Ret.), resilience is the answer.
The term and the timeline
Having grown up near an Air Force base and served in the Air Force for nearly 30 years, resilience has proven vital for Hale, and he’s seen a similar impact among those with whom he served.
“I got to command at a lot of different levels, which means that I got to interact with a lot of families, do a lot of things, and see firsthand the importance of resilience while I was on active duty,” Hale said.
A term widely defined by Webster’s Dictionary, the Department of Defense, and others, resilience according to Hale is “the ability to bounce back after mental, physical, spiritual, moral, and complex injuries,” adding that the growth is a key emphasis of resilience.
Working within the military community leads to a quick realization from statistics alone that resilience is an important concept to put into practice.
“We’re still losing 22 to 23 veterans a day to suicide,” Hale said. “When I talk with chaplains today, they are still almost overwhelmingly engaged with doing suicide prevention work out on their bases, out on their posts, out with the ships going out to the fleet.”
Based on his knowledge and experience, Hale asserted that rates of suicide and PTSD in the military occur because of the lack of resilience in individuals’ lives.
Hale said the service branches’ pillars, so to speak, each factor into the resilience that can combat suicide and PTSD.
“Every one of [the branches] has something that they consider a spiritual pillar. They tell soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, our Space Force people, ‘Hey, you’ve got to be prepared physically, you’ve got to be prepared mentally, you’ve got to be prepared spiritually, you’ve got to be prepared socially,’” Hale said. “When we talk about that spiritual wellness part of the equation, that is a recognition that the spiritual factor, when it breaks down, leads to extended trauma.”
Rather than waiting until traumatic situations to assess and develop your own resilience, Hale said building resilience before those situations arise is the best course of action.
Giving the hypothetical example of extended deployments, to which many military families may be able to relate, Hale said, “There are all kinds of programs that the DoD, that the Veterans Administration, that a lot of churches do to bring families back together … but their success rate is a lot better if they’ve talked about it before something’s happened.”
Choice, hope, and community
While leading a session about the topic of resilience during OCF’s annual Local Leader Conference held at Spring Canyon in the spring of 2023, Hale presented three factors that affect an individual’s resilience: choice, hope, and community.
By choice, Hale means an individual’s own decision to persevere through trauma and pursue healing. He cited academic studies and historical examples of survivors of the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War, the Holocaust during World War II, and others. Hale specifically mentioned Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor.
“Most of his family had been killed in the Holocaust in the death camps, and he found himself stripped of everything but the capacity to choose,” Hale said. “It’s that capacity to choose, it’s that choice [that] becomes a foundational area, and people who want to recover from trauma, they’ve got to realize, ‘I still have choices.’”
For those who fear their trauma will always prevent them from making decisions to move forward and heal, Hale reminds them that God is bigger than any traumatic situation or situations we face in this life.
“God tells us, ‘I can heal your trauma, and I can be there for you,’” Hale said. “That gives us the choice to move forward with God to work on becoming a healed individual.”
Developing a foundation of resilience early on often helps with making the right choices to grow, as does the understanding that everyone is guaranteed to face difficult things at some point. “They prepare themselves well for that through prayer, through being in the Word, through being in Scripture,” Hale said.
Hope or the absence of it can prove immensely impactful to a person’s ability to recover from trauma, as shown by the story of Chaplain Robert Preston Taylor, the third U.S. Air Force Chief of Chaplains, a WWII prisoner of war, and survivor of the Bataan Death March.
Hale said that Taylor shared hope with his fellow prisoners by bringing in whatever medicine he could and, furthermore, sharing the gospel in a hopeless environment.
“Our hope is in Jesus Christ, and that is ultimately where we have to place everything on the altar,” Hale said. “Jesus Christ is the one who can both heal us immediately or heal us in eternity. He is the only one who came and sacrificed Himself for our sin.”
Speaking about his own experience as a husband, as a father, and as a pilot in the Air Force, Hale said his resilience was built upon deciding early on that he would only be able to serve effectively in those roles by knowing he needed the Lord’s help.
The final factor, community, serves as the antidote to the isolation that can leave many feeling hopeless and left without the choice to heal. Hale cited a Harvard Business Review article from 2021 that affirmed community’s relevance to resilience.
“Isolation is associated with elevated risk for heart attack, stroke, chronic inflammation, depression, anxiety, perceived stress, and loneliness,” Hale shared from the study. “Those are all the things that contribute to a very high suicide rate and a downgrade in our mental illness.”
Hale juxtaposed isolation with Biblical examples of God-given community, one of which is seen in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
“That tells me I’ve got a vertical fellowship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and I’ve got a horizontal relationship of fellowship with others around me,” Hale said. “The Holy Spirit is the one who’s tying that all together to make it so that we can overcome the biggest obstacle that we have to overcome when we’re talking about depression and all those other things is that feeling within ourselves that you have nowhere to go.”
Assessment and development
How do you know if you are a resilient individual? Hale recommended a self-examination in which you evaluate how you handle “the small things”—keeping your temper, seeing the fruit of the Spirit in your own life, or loving others around you well.
To develop resilience, Hale said three “be’s” are essential: be in the Word, be in prayer, be in fellowship.
“I’ve got to work on that vertical relationship between me and God so that I’m hearing clearly what He’s saying about the things that are going on in my life,” Hale said. “[And that vertical relationship enables] a solid horizontal fellowship with other believers in my life, and sometimes, not even other believers, but others who are looking to me for leadership, who are looking to me for an answer.”
As resilience develops, we are sure to experience hard things that can potentially shake our foundations of resilience.
Hale tied the impact of traumatic events on resilience to an analogy of the roads around his home in Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma roads are built on a layer of clay, and when it gets a little bit wet, it gets a little bit wintry underneath, the foundation starts to shift,” Hale said. “That causes issues later on in life, and we as a Christian community [need to] come to grips with it and realize it … We need to say, ‘Bring that to the altar, bring that to church.’”
Since his retirement from the Air Force, Hale’s passion for resilience has driven him to take on a variety of full-time and volunteer roles that allow him to “be a part of that spiritual side of the healing process for veterans.” Hale and his wife now live in Edmond, Okla. From there, Hale serves as OCF Area Coordinator for Central Oklahoma, Southern Kansas, and Northern Texas.
“Part of my passion for doing that is the importance of what we do spiritually to building those foundations of resilience so that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines and their families can have a resilient lifestyle based on their faith,” Hale said.
This article was adapted from a conversation between OCF Director of Communications Josh Jackson and Tim Hale, who was a guest on OCF’s Crosspoint podcast.