Edwards AFB Airman bounces back from adversity to create Operation Strongheart

  • Published
  • By Grady Fontana
  • 412th Test Wing

A program called Operation Strongheart has officially taken shape recently at Edwards Air Force Base to support those who need help. Although, helping Airmen is not something new to the Force—Airmen do it daily—one Airman’s tragedy has sprung birth to a program that is very personal and effective.

On the surface, the program appears to be a giveaway of a care package with an enclosed cluster of items custom-tailored to individuals based on their situation. However, these kits are assembled with more thought and care, and target the root cause, by someone who is a survivor of her own tragedy.

Tech. Sgt. Janna L. Ybarra is the readiness noncommissioned officer at the Airman and Family Readiness Center. Although her Air Force career has blossomed over the past few years, a dark patch almost consumed her leading to suicide ideation. Her story demonstrates how adversity can be defeated with the support of others, and how she is turning her experience into help toward those who are experiencing tough times.

“I had been collecting pills for weeks preparing for my suicide,” said Ybarra. “I had a date picked out and I planned to drug myself into a coma that I would hopefully not wake up from.”

The reason why people attempt suicide varies, and one may never know why an individual decides on suicide. For Ybarra, the root of this ideation was traced to a sexual assault that happened a few years ago.

“In the years prior to my ideation I struggled with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder from a sexual assault I had gone through three year prior,” said Ybarra. “Those three years led to the deterioration of my mental health from trying to forget what had happened and blaming myself. I remember crying myself to sleep asking God ‘why did this happen to me?’ and those questions eventually turned into ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”

Ybarra did not attempt the suicide and credited her road to recovery to a caring senior NCO that she confided in and who continuously checked on her, and led her to seek the help Ybarra needed.

“My supervisor was there for me,” said Ybarra. “Throughout the whole process. In my recovery, my well-being and mental health were put first.”

Today, Ybarra can attest to the impact one can make for caring for another during a time of need. The inception of Strongheart was tied to her desire to help.

“Operation Strongheart started when I had a friend who told me about something traumatic that happened in her life she was struggling with,” said Ybarra. “I wanted to do something special for her and started by looking online for a basket or some kind of bundle I could purchase to give to her to hopefully help a little.”

To Ybarra’s surprise, she found nothing that she though fit the mood. So she started looking up resources that she could put together independently and that were available to assist in recovering from something traumatic.

“What I found were self-help books, journals and pens, a knapsack of hope and a hand-written card to the receiver with a message in it,” said Ybarra. “I started making the boxes from my own house, using photo storage boxes and putting things together as I encountered individuals who I thought would benefit.”

As a result, the kits were more effective than a standard care package because the composition of items came from the heart of someone who has experienced adversity in the Air Force and has a pinpoint idea of what a person would need during a tough time in their life. “I definitely have an idea of what tools I wish I had earlier on in my recovery,” said Ybarra.

The program has grown to where it is now, compared to its humble beginnings in late 2017. Back then, Ybarra built kits from her home, while now it’s a viable program at Edwards. She credited the growth to communication, passion and supportive leadership at Edwards.

Another important advocate to the program is the Key Spouses Network on Edwards. According to Ann LaMothe, a key spouse volunteer, the kits are wonderful and is something that all key spouses can have access to and give to someone.

“There is a card in the kit and I think it’s the most valuable resource,” said LaMothe. “It’s personal; we encourage with sayings like ‘stay strong’ or ‘you can keep going’ so it’s basically tailored to the situation.”

The whole goal was to create something personalized and catered to whatever someone was going through.

“It’s special having something personal you can give to someone, more than just the ‘hey, let us know if you need us,’” said LaMothe. “The ‘let us know if you need anything,’ is sometimes overused. The kits act as a bridge; it shows we're interested in you, we’re invested and we care about your situation.”

Ybarra has sustained the program through donations, but is hoping the Air Force will adopt this program so that Operation Strongheart can continue to breathe life with a steady stream of resources and expand to other bases.

“Strongheart is a success story in my eyes,” said Ybarra. “My story and other stories that I hear where people are put first gives me hope. It gives me hope that there will be better days and I hope my story gives others hope as well.”