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NEWS | May 13, 2024

Mental Health Awareness: D.C. National Guard Aviation Focuses on Holistic Wellness

By Sgt. 1st Class Erica Jaros

Kevin Bubolz, a CH-47 Chinook pilot for the U.S. Army, deployed to Afghanistan in 2014 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. During his time there he met Zac, a black lab, who brought joy to service members wherever he went.

“It was incredible to see how Zac could instantly bring a smile to someone’s face, even though I could tell they were going through a tough time,” Bubolz said. “This experience made me and my wife decide to try to have a similar impact on our community.”

He first volunteered with his therapy dog, Ellie, in 2018 shortly before leaving the Army. Their “Mission to Spread Smiles” moved to social media in 2020, elevating “Golden Retriever Life” when in-person events were not an option.

“Now that we have a platform, our goal is to use it to amplify the incredible impact that dogs can have,” he said.

Although his efforts are aimed at people of all backgrounds, career fields, and point in life, he always remembers his military family. Kevin and his two retrievers, Ellie and Emma, attended a wellness event at Davison Airfield on Fort Belvoir March 10 where they met with service members, took photos, and explored Soldier issues.

“It’s great to meet those serving in our local community and learn about their mission.”

Recognizing the multifaceted needs of its members, the 224th Aviation Regiment, D.C. Army National Guard organized the comprehensive wellness event, focusing on mental health awareness, career development, and retirement planning. The event, tailored to meet the diverse needs of military personnel, underscored the unit's commitment to supporting the holistic well-being of its members throughout their military careers and beyond.

With the unique stressors including the demanding nature of their duties, dual employment, and commitments to family that National Guard service members balance, the event aimed to provide resources and support to enhance mental resilience and overall well-being. Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jennifer Smith, a licensed social worker and a UH-72A MEDEVAC aviator with Company D, 1st Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, who spearheaded the initiative, emphasized the importance of addressing mental health within the military community.

"When it comes to behavior health, people think of counseling, therapy, things like that," said Smith. "But therapy comes in all kinds of boxes, shapes, and sizes so even petting a sweet dog you know that they had that could be very therapeutic. It could be just a mental brake so therapy could look like a lot different things there's art therapy, music therapy, now you have a pet therapy."

The event covered topics such as stress management, coping strategies, and accessing mental health resources available within the National Guard and the wider community. Participants engaged in discussions and activities aimed at reducing stigma surrounding mental health issues and promoting help-seeking behaviors.

In addition to mental health, the event addressed career development and transition planning, recognizing the importance of supporting service members at various stages of their military careers.

"A big part of being a social worker is connecting resources and empowering people to invest in their care,” said Smith. “We're kind of like an ally for that journey so being here in the D.C. Guard, especially in aviation, we do have unique challenges and considerations you know for a care so observing what's been going on as far as the support of current events this was the perfect time to take a pause and help support the soldiers.”

For service members nearing retirement, the event offered guidance on financial planning, healthcare options, and post-retirement opportunities. Representatives from veteran service organizations were on hand to provide information and assistance tailored to the unique needs of retired military personnel. As the D.C. National Guard continues its mission to serve the nation, events like these serve as reminders of the importance of addressing the holistic needs of service members, ensuring they are supported at every stage of their military journey.

Wrapping up their visit, Bubolz shared some parting advice…

“Sometimes, something as small as a smile can make all the difference,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to go out of your way to spread smiles and to seek help when you need it.”

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to increase awareness of the importance of mental health and wellness in Americans’ lives and to celebrate recovery from mental illness. For over 20 years, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has recognized Mental Health Awareness Month (MHAM) every May to increase awareness about the vital role mental health plays in our overall health, well-being and to provide resources and information to support individuals and communities who may need mental health support.

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