Applying the wingmate concept to EMS

“There has never been a more crucial time to have a wingmate in EMS – a wingmate to watch your six and guide each other through the storm”


By Alan J. Werdehoff, NREMT

In 2012, I raised my right hand and enlisted into the United States Air Force. Two years later, I would be short notice deployed to Afghanistan and then again to Qatar in 2017. My Air Force career would bring me to the forefront of several unfolding world events as a hazardous materials airlift inspector. As inspectors, we play a key role and bear responsibility for ensuring the safety of the aircrew, passengers and aircraft during flights transporting hazardous materials. It’s demanding both physically and mentally.

But what makes this all possible at the human level is something instilled into recruits from day one; the wingmate concept. In basic training, trainees cannot walk to medical or anywhere beyond the dormitory without a wingmate. When you’re assigned to a new base or squadron, you have an assigned wingmate to guide you before and after you arrive. More importantly, from the moment you deploy, to when you return home and long after, there are multiple wingmates standing by for both you and your family. They’re supervisors, commanders, coworkers, chaplains and counselors. In fact, Congress has mandated by law that all military personnel re-entering the civilian workforce complete a transitional assistance workshop run by the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Labor.

There has never been a more crucial time to have a wingmate in EMS – a wingmate to watch your six and guide each other through the storm. (Photo/Getty Images)
There has never been a more crucial time to have a wingmate in EMS – a wingmate to watch your six and guide each other through the storm. (Photo/Getty Images)

Military strategies to protect mental health during COVID-19

When COVID-19 arrived at our doorstep, it was my wingmates in the ambulance that would get me through the day, and the weeks that followed. When facing growing uncertainty as EMS providers, it is the wingmate next to us who helps us weather the storm. We share anxieties over the risks of bringing the virus home, or even our own health risk factors. Make no mistake, there are parallels that can be drawn between serving in Afghanistan and being a front-line EMS provider during the pandemic. We will always as a nation owe a debt to those who continuously put service before self during this time of crisis.

Yet, what’s both striking and concerning is the differences in mental health training and resources between the military and EMS community. Trauma care as we know it in EMS is largely lessoned learned from military medicine for obvious reasons. But mental health is not given the same attention or perspective. The two communities not only share similar mental health challenges, but also similar workforce demographics.

Having attended many mental health, wellness and resiliency trainings in the military, the common lesson present in all of them is, you guessed it, the wingmate concept. It’s the fundamental core value as an organization that you will always have someone at your side in time of need. It is a commitment recited in the Airman’s Creed which reads “I will never leave an Airman behind.” As EMS providers, these words and values could not be more relevant.

Managers, supervisors, and mentors at all levels of the EMS community must always remain aware of the wellbeing of their people. It is paramount not only to employee health but patient care as well. As with trauma care, there is opportunity and insight for leaders to look to the military for lessons learned and proven practices. Moreover, leaders can look to the veterans in their ranks who can offer valuable mentoring and leadership skills gained through rigorous professional development schools and experience in the military.

There has never been a more crucial time to have a wingmate in EMS – a wingmate to watch your six and guide each other through the storm. EMS is a team sport, and a rigorous one at that. Don’t go it alone. Have a wingmate. Be a wingmate.

Read next: The 3-part EMS assessment: Your patient, your partner and yourself

About the author

Alan J. Werdehoff, NREMT, is an EMT with Elite Ambulance, in Chicago; and a hazardous materials inspector with the United States Air Force Air National Guard. He received three Air Force Achievement Medals, the Air Reserve Forces Meritorious Service Medal and the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal.

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