New Air Force policy aims to help aviators seek mental health care

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The Air Force has updated its mental health rules to allow airmen to seek treatment for 60 days before they are required to obtain a return-to-duty waiver to resume flying, the service said in a release Wednesday.

The new policy eliminates the mandatory waiting, or “stabilization,” period that kept aviators grounded longer after seeking help and a potential diagnosis. The service hopes that setting a more definitive timeline for when airmen can return to the air will encourage them to seek help without fear that the time off will cause them to fall short on training certifications and substantially hurt their career prospects.

The changes are the culmination of work by Air Mobility Command’s “Warrior Mental Health” working group, a panel of aircrew members, aviation psychologists, a pilot-physician, flight surgeons and a specialized doctor from NASA that considered potential updates to the service’s mental health policies.

Maj. Jane Marlow, a C-130J Super Hercules airlifter pilot who led the working group, said in the release that she had delayed care for mental health issues until she was in a non-flying assignment to avoid being “grounded for an indefinite period.”

“The trauma care I went through was life-changing,” Marlow said in the release. “I knew that I was, without a doubt, a safer pilot, a better leader and a stronger wingman because of the care I received — yet I was still required to spend months in a non-flying status because of my diagnosis.”

Flight surgeons — specialized doctors trained to treat the toll that the rigorous act of flying takes on the human body — can submit the waiver for airmen to return to the air at the end of the 60-day treatment period, the service said.

C-130J pilot Lt. Col. Sandra Salzman said in the release that serving as the working group’s pilot-physician offered a unique opportunity to turn her experience into advocacy.

The team’s recommendations were based on an “evolving understanding of human responses to stress and development of resilience through early treatment,” Salzman said.

Air Mobility Command’s working group launched in January 2022, shortly after AMC boss Gen. Mike Minihan posted a picture of a mental health appointment on his calendar on social media.

“Warrior heart. No stigma,” Minihan posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

He told the Washington Post in 2023 that the appointment prompted the three most difficult days of his career as he processed challenging moments from throughout his military service.

“What I discovered is that when you pack a body on ice in the back of C-130 and it smells horrific, and you can’t wash it off you, that’s something to deal with,” he told the Post. “When you’re in the Pentagon on 9/11, that’s something to deal with. When your squadron is supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2003 to 2006, and your squadron moves hundreds of angels [deceased U.S. troops] … there’s something to talk about.”

The four-star general’s openness has sparked further conversations about the role of mental health care — and the challenges airmen face in receiving it — in the years that followed.

“If you want to look at a pilot with PTSD, you’re looking at one right now,” Minihan said this spring at a yearly meeting of senior leaders, wing commanders, command chiefs and spouses across the mobility force.

“This policy affects me and if it affects me, it affects someone in your unit — they have it, haven’t sought help for it and [are] suffering in silence,” he said. “It is incredibly powerful work by this team to lower the barriers to mental health care for our warrior airmen.”

Zamone “Z” Perez is a reporter at Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.



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