Key Spouse, guest speaker highlights importance of connection

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kalee Sexton
  • 512th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Dr. Sonny Kelly served as the keynote speaker at a 512th Airlift Wing presentation titled “Speaking Truth to and with Power” Jan. 7, 2023, at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware

Initially intended as a key spouse training session, the event opened to a wider audience when Col. Douglas Stouffer, 512th AW commander, decided the message would also be beneficial to Airmen, especially those in leadership and helping agencies.

Kelly, an Air Force veteran and professor at Fayetteville Technical Community College in North Carolina, also serves as a key spouse for the 512th Memorial Affairs Squadron. After losing his brother, who also served in the Air Force, to suicide, Kelly said he wanted to create ways to help others communicate more effectively by “reframing and reclaiming” interpersonal challenges.

He described a time from his youth when he cut himself on a barbed wire fence and how it left him with scars on his hands.

“Scars are not a reminder of your pain, but a reminder that you survived,” he said.

The past few years have been especially traumatic, he said, and people should acknowledge the hurt so they can get to a better place.

“We’ve all been through trauma, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he said.

Kelly started with a poem “The Cold Within” by James Patrick Kinney. It tells a story of six people sitting around a dying fire. They each hold a stick; but, bound by biases and distrust for one another, no one offers his stick to keep the fire going. The poem ends by saying they didn’t die from the cold outside, but from the coldness within.

“They each hold their stick back, just like people who hold back their gifts, or pieces of who they are,” Kelly said.

He encouraged leaders to be vulnerable and lead by example, quoting Theodore Roosevelt who said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

He also emphasized the importance of truly hearing and understanding lower-ranking colleagues, outlining three interpersonal needs required to maintain a positive relationship: control, inclusion and affection.

Additionally, he noted how simple, consistent and repeatable rhythms build trust. For example, if a leader consistently checks in on an Airman every day, that Airman will trust that the leader cares about his well-being, Kelly said.

Throughout his presentation, Kelly kept the audience engaged. He gave each person an interactive worksheet to help them follow along, had them repeat phrases and even created a song to help attendees remember how to handle conflict in a productive way.

“We are all trying to find a way to survive and thrive in an age where trauma is the standard,” he said. “I think too many of us are trying to succeed and survive and thrive on our own, and if we can get together and find rhythms and ways to connect, that is our answer for hope.”

Emily Reppert, a 512th Civil Engineer Squadron key spouse who is leading her family while her husband is deployed, said she is glad she attended the presentation.

“Sonny’s presentation gave me the boost I needed to get through the (the deployment),” she said. “I had been wondering if I would even laugh again over the next several months. This changed my whole mind frame, and I feel much better.”