3 simple ways Drill Status Guardsmen can build stronger connections

How you can develop personal connections and lifetime friendships with your teammates, even though you only see them one weekend a month.

Commentary by Master Sgt. Matt McCoy, 184th Public Affairs. The views expressed herein are those of the author; they do not necessarily reflect the views of the 184th Wing, Kansas National Guard or the United States Air Force.

As an Air National Guard member, you face unique challenges when trying to fit in with a team. You only get two days per month to interact with your team which makes it hard to feel connected.

It’s easy as part-time Guardsmen to feel disconnected from the unit. You come in on Saturday at o’dark-thirty; go home Sunday at close-of-business, and don’t really think about the Air National Guard until the next Regularly Scheduled Drill.

The disconnection has nothing to do with enthusiasm or commitment. It’s just the nature of the Minuteman lifestyle.

You may be a parent with school-aged kids who play three sports and the violin. You may be a college student who can’t see past the awaiting stack of homework and last week’s laundry.

Or you may be a full-time employee; a leader in your industry who also coaches youth sports in the evenings. Weekends are filled with games, family activities and church.

For whatever reason, many Guardsmen don’t even think about their coworkers during the weeks between drills.

On the other hand, many Guardsmen develop strong friendships that last a lifetime.

In the 184th Wing, we often see examples of strong friendships every time we invite our retired members to an event. People who have been friends for 40+ years come back to visit their old stomping grounds—to the buildings where their friendships first began.

Close friendships like theirs didn’t happen overnight. They took time, lots of conversations and deliberate action.

Below are three simple ways you can build stronger connections with your fellow Guardsmen.

1. Go to lunch as a team

Nearly every organization in the wing is broken up into smaller teams. Maybe it’s two of you, or maybe it’s 10. Whether you call it an office, a shop, a branch, or whatever, these are your people.

The most basic thing you can do to bring your people together is go to lunch together on drill weekends as a team.

Food is at the center of most strong relationships. Families, friends, people dating, mentorships, business partnerships—most of these relationships are built and strengthened during meals.

The Services Flight, assigned to the 184th Force Support Squadron, is probably the best example I’ve seen when it comes to building connections around a meal.

You may not know this, but before they serve you lunch at the Jayhawk Roost, the Airmen assigned to Services all sit together at the same table to eat, talk, laugh and bond. When they’re done, they work as a tight-knit, well-organized unit that feeds a herd of hungry people.

There’s no team building exercise or briefing that I’m aware of that comes close to strengthening bonds like consistently sharing meals together.

2. Host off-base get-togethers

A great way to know your team better is to hang out with them off base, in civilian clothes; in a fun and relaxed atmosphere.

Encourage your teammates to bring their significant other and kids to a gathering at least once or twice a year. This gives everyone a chance to get to know each other on levels that don’t involve stripes and insignias.

This also allows opportunities for spouses to connect with the unit. Support from spouses is one of the most important factors to retention. If spouses feel connected with your team, you can be sure that the team members will feel the same way.

Ideas for get-togethers include:

  • A cook out at a park in Wichita
    • Sedgwick County Park
    • Riverside Park
    • The Exploration Place playground/pavilions
  • Spend a day at the Sedgwick County Zoo
  • Go to a pumpkin patch in the fall
  • A camping weekend at a lake in Kansas

The 184th Communications Flight used to hold a “Flight Night Out” once a month at different places around Wichita. I witnessed, first-hand, the team building benefits that resulted from those gatherings.

The 184th Munitions Squadron camped at Big Hill Lake near Parsons once a year…and they still do even though their squadron shut down years ago!

Your off-base get-togethers can be for kids and adults, or adults only if you all need a night out. Just be sure everyone is comfortable with the costs associated with the activity.

3. Talk one-to-one every drill

You wouldn’t believe what you can learn about people just by having a casual conversation. You might learn that, on your team, you have a banjo player, a baker, a college wrestling coach, or even a lead singer in a local band.

Make it a point to learn more about your teammates every drill weekend. To do this, offer little insights about yourself, whether it’s goofy stories, your hobbies, personal goals, or anything you’re comfortable sharing.

If you notice that someone is being isolated, or isolating themselves, you have the power to intervene by simply inviting them into a conversation.

As more and more conversations happen, you’ll learn about people’s backgrounds; where they come from; where they want to go; their past adventures and experiences.

When your team learns more about the lighter stuff, they’ll begin trusting each other with the heavier stuff.

Most people don’t just open up about marital problems; financial struggles; legal issues; depression, and other stressors. Especially if rank, title, cliques, and communication hierarchies create barriers in normal conversations.

Only trusted teammates—those who have made a deep connection—will be allowed to enter the darker, heavier side of someone’s life.

You may not be the one who can fix their problems, but at least they’ll have someone they can go to. And when they’re ready to open up, they won’t feel like they’re talking to a stranger.

Be consistent

Personal connections are built over long periods of time and require deliberate, consistent action. There is no knock-out punch, silver bullet, or hocus pocus that can be used.

Going to lunch as a team once a year won’t do it. Hosting an awkward World Cup party every four years isn’t going to work either. People probably wouldn’t go anyway if you don’t interact with them.

To build personal, meaningful connections with your teammates, you have to consistently take interest in who they are. And you don’t have to be in charge of the team to make all of this happen.

Before you know it, 15 years or so will pass and you’ll realize that you have friendships that will last a lifetime. Who knows, in thirty years, it might be you and your retired friends visiting the wing for a big event.

Matt McCoy has been building, managing and leading teams since 1995. He’s led teams for military organizations, volunteer organizations, youth sports and private companies. Teams ranged from 5 to 50+ people. He joined the 184th Wing in 1997 and currently serves as the superintendent of the 184th Public Affairs office.