NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nevada --
With a stern voice but a heart of gold, Col. Adam Roberts, the 555th Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers commander at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, practices resiliency each day alongside his best friend and service dog, Porsche, a loveable labradoodle with golden brown fur resembling the look and feel of a stuffed animal.
Roberts wants to use his rank in order to help those around him acknowledge and accept the importance of mental health and wellness.
“I want to convey a message as the commander, as a colonel, as an Airman, as a human, that you matter,” said Roberts. “Life isn’t always easy. You never really know what’s going on behind someone’s eyes. We should act with grace and a little bit of forgiveness, a little bit of empathy, if indeed we believe that every person matters.”
Roberts’ roughly 23 years in service has been accompanied with a fair amount of struggle, but he’s determined to shed a light on others who may also be experiencing low points as he has, and he believes Porsche allows him to better engage with those around him.
Roberts’ struggles of resiliency have been rooted from his time in service through deployments and from divorce.
He has deployed on several occasions throughout his military career to locations such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq and has been involved in combat, facing many decisions and moments that have haunted him to this day.
During many of his deployments, Roberts transported goods and personnel via convoy.
“I was assigned to the Multinational Security Transition Command in Iraq,” said Roberts. “I was a turret gunner. I’ve been IED’d (hit with an Improvised Explosive Device), had some engagements in traffic, had lots of indirect fire, lots of mortars, lots of rockets.”
Roberts’ job as a turret gunner involved guarding assets and service members around him with strict guidelines of defense and response, whatever the cost. Almost killing people that didn’t need to be killed are instances that Roberts still remembers vividly to this day. One instance during one of these convoys involved a couple driving in traffic.
“We were driving down the freeway and this car comes to merge into our convoy,” said Roberts. “I can see that it is clearly an old guy and his wife, and they’re just out driving and doing their thing and they didn’t realize that they were merging into a convoy.”
Roberts shoots at their tire.
He shoots at the engine block.
Roberts’ fear sets in as he anticipates what might be the inevitable: He’s only a millimeter away from killing someone that in his heart he knows is an innocent bystander who’s just not paying attention.
Fortunately the couple pulls over at the last second.
“That immediate sense of release and relief — I don’t really know how to describe the emotions I felt or even what I’m feeling right now,” said Roberts.
After his time on deployment and transitioning from active duty to the Reserve, he had attended the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. There he had experienced another struggle that has affected his mental well-being.
“I was at the Army War College,” said Roberts. “I was talking to my wife on a Friday, ‘I love you. How’s everything going?’ The normal stuff. And then on Sunday, the marriage was over. I didn’t see it coming. I was really hurting.”
Roberts struggled with depression, anger and self-worth. To make matters worse, this was the same time he was assigned to command the 555th “Triple Nickel” Squadron.
“The men and women of the Triple Nickel needed me to be in a good frame of mind to be able to serve them. And I couldn’t deliver that in the place that I was. I was really afraid for my career, my security clearance, for what people would think about me, for hurting. But regardless I’ve always been told to ‘suck it up,’ to ‘man up,’ and for most of my career I have done that. I think it’s made it harder for me to be the leader that I want to be. So I went to get help.”
Roberts compares the importance of receiving mental assistance to receiving physical assistance, such as when he broke his wrist after crashing his mountain bike.
“It was real bad but I didn’t hide it, I didn’t pretend my wrist wasn’t broken,” said Roberts. “I went to the doctor and I got help. And at points in my life when I struggled mentally, I went to get help. It’s OK to not be OK, but it’s also OK to go get OK.”
Roberts called Military OneSource to receive help. He talked through issues regarding his divorce, all the accompanying emotions and his combat time. Through this process he discovered he had developed sleep paralysis. He never thought he’d be someone attributed with PTSD and that was a struggle on its own to accept.
“When I get these episodes, it messes me up for a few days,” said Roberts. “It’s hard to process it.”
Roberts trained Porsche from then on as a service animal. Her function is to wake Roberts during these episodes. But Roberts doesn’t bring Porsche to work so that she can wake him up, she serves as a bridge between him and reaching out to others around him.
“She helps me be vulnerable and connect with people,” said Roberts. “She helps to engage in conversation about wellness and mental wellness. She’s a great barrier breaker for that. Many times when people see Porsche and want to give her a pet, I’m always open to it. I hear lots of times something like ‘this is the best I’ve felt all day … this is the best I’ve felt all year.’ It absolutely breaks my heart. Why should giving a cute little puppy be the best you’ve felt all year?”
Roberts allows interactions like these to transition into moments of connection and to be able to reach out by sharing his own struggles of resiliency and provide assistance and resources.
“Through a number of these conversations I’ve been able to call Military OneSource with a member and set up some treatments and set folks going on a healthy path,” said Roberts. “So I bring [Porsche] so I can better serve other people.”
Roberts hopes to bridge the gap along with Porsche to advocate for better awareness and treatment of mental health, not necessarily to advocate for everyone to go out and get a service animal.
Roberts often refers to the note under “service before self” within A Profession of Arms: Our Core Values as a guideline of prioritizing and emphasizing wellness.
“‘Airmen must practice self-care first to be able to serve others,’” said Roberts. “If it’s alright for a colonel to not be alright, then it’s alright for you. And it’s alright for you to get alright.”