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Face of Defense: Airman Copes With Stress Through Family, Counseling

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo., Nov. 30, 2016 — A 30-year career, multiple deployments and two months of intense training could not prepare recently retired Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Bob Weber for what he would experience during a 2010 deployment to Afghanistan.

"We got there in July," Weber said. "In January [2011], that was when Pharris was killed."

Army Sgt. 1st Class Robert W. Pharris was killed in action by a roadside bomb Jan. 5, 2011. A goat and sheep farmer and a member of the Missouri National Guard, Pharris went to Afghanistan with Missouri's Agri-Business Development Team-IV to encourage agriculture infrastructure development in the war-torn country.

The loss of Pharris caused pain that lasted well beyond the deployment.

Deployment to Afghanistan

Weber was selected to lead five Air National Guard airmen and 58 Missouri Army National Guard soldiers as convoy escorts to ADT-IV in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. The combined unit attended two months of convoy and escort training at Camp Clark near Nevada, Missouri, and at Camp Atterbury, Indiana. Soon after, the unit deployed.

"Ag told us where they wanted to go, we came up with the convoy plan, met at the trucks and did our thing," Weber said. "My main job -- being a supervisor -- was to bring my people home. I couldn't do that for Pharris."

One evening, Weber and his team drove out and returned on a successful convoy. However, Pharris was on a different mission. That convoy hit an improvised explosive device. His truck was the eighth of twelve. The blast killed Pharris and Army Spc. Christian Romig, a cavalry scout with the 61st Cavalry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

Loss of Team Member

"They got us all together and told everybody," Weber said. "It was a shock. It kind of hits you and you don't know what to do."

Weber consoled his airmen and soldiers as they continued their deployment. He kept his mind off of his own emotions by helping those around him.

"It was a trying and emotional time for everyone," he said. "You put it in the back of your head, but then I was only bringing 61 people home." The unit left a seat open on the plane in Pharris' honor.

It was when he returned home that the real work to heal began.

While deployed, Weber was injured when he jumped from a defensive tower in response to an incoming attack on their forward operating base. He went through eight surgeries upon his return to the U.S. Exhaustion from the surgeries and his medications helped him sleep fine at first. But as he recovered and the medications stopped, his nights became restless.

"While deployed, I was helping the teammates," Weber said. "At home, I had time to think about things."

Seeking Help

Months passed, and Weber finally sought mental health support. He worked with Cheryl Reed, who was the 131st Bomb Wing psychological health director at the time. With help, he started to make progress.

"The important thing to understand with Bob's situation is that he recognized he needed help," Reed said. "Not everybody does that. Airmen should always remember the wingman concept and ask if they see someone acting out of character."

Weber sought out several wingmen, but left out perhaps his most important ally, his wife, Thomasine.

"At home, I didn't tell my wife for two years," he said of the loss of Pharris. "When I came back, I was different. I wasn't as good a husband or as good a father. But, I believe that once I opened up to them, they were able to understand where some of the problems that I was having were coming from. By having them informed of the problem I was facing, I was able to help them understand."

Counseling, Talking to Family

Even though his counseling started two years before he told is wife, Weber said he made significantly more progress after he brought his family into the conversation.

"It felt like a weight lifted off my chest," Weber said. "Counseling helped me recognize my triggers. I was able to talk about it more. You think, ‘I'm Bob. I'm 10 feet tall. I'm invincible.' But, sooner or later, it catches up to you."

Weber, who worked with multiple counselors on base, also discussed his situation with his commander, the chaplains and leadership from the 131st.

"The biggest thing was that they were not going to judge me in a negative way," Weber said. "By far, my biggest mistake was not saying anything about the problems I was having. Once I did open up to them, and they understood to some extent the issues I was facing, they were there for me whenever I needed to talk."

Although Weber has retired, he still encourages airmen and soldiers who may also be dealing with personal problems or post-traumatic stress disorder to open up.

"All airmen need to know that there are people to talk with, and family is a great place to start," Weber said. "Everyone needs to know that there is no shame in seeking help if you are having issues that affect you and or your family.

He added, "Whether if it's a buddy, a family member, or a professional; believe me, you will feel so much better when you can talk about it."
Distribution channels: Military Industry