Military’s Top NCO Confronts Mental Health Stigmas, Promotes Better Care on Podcast

July 20, 2021Mac Caltrider
Mental Health

SEAC Ramón Colón-López hosts a podcast that seeks to improve mental health care in the DOD. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos Vazquez II, courtesy of DVIDS.

The senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is a rank some service members don’t even know exists. It’s the top-ranking enlisted position in the entire Armed Forces, complete with its own insignia. The current SEAC, Ramón Colón-López, is the fourth person to hold the rank and the first Air Force member to serve as SEAC. 

Colón-López is a Pararescueman by trade but now holds responsibilities that reach far beyond the world of Air Force special operations. Despite having more responsibilities than other enlisted troops in the Department of Defense, Colón-López somehow makes time to record a podcast. 

On Bottom Line Up Front, Colón-López has hosted guests such as MMA legend Ken Shamrock, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Peter Pace, and Dr. Shauna Springer, the bestselling author of Warrior and an expert on psychological trauma, military transition, moral injury, and suicide prevention. Colón-López said he hates predetermined and rehearsed conversations, so the podcast results in organic, free-flowing conversations with guests.

While the SEAC’s podcast focuses on myriad topics affecting American service members, Colón-López said he is especially committed to using the platform to help overturn mental health stigmas and improve care. He has been very open about his own issues with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. Last year he released a video of a candid conversation with his wife, Janet, describing his personal road to recovery. 

“The response from that video was overwhelmingly positive,” the SEAC’s public affairs adviser, Master Sgt. Michael Cowley, told Coffee or Die Magazine

Before he was recording podcasts with the entire DOD as the prospective audience, Colón-López enlisted in the Air Force with an open contract. He was assigned the specialty of logistician but soon found his calling as a member of the Air Force’s elite pararescue community.

“That was when my purpose in life was defined,” Colón-López told Coffee or Die. “But I will never call reasons for quitting excuses, because those pipelines are not for everyone. One cannot sit there and judge people who quit; the fact is it’s just not for everyone.” 

Colón-López said he’s very focused on celebrating the strength of the entire Department of Defense, not just elite units like the one he came from.

“Your proximity to the fight does not define you. It’s the actions you take to make sure the mission goes as planned,” he says of the countless service members who work tirelessly out of the spotlight. 

Mental Health
SEAC Colón-López, left, recently returned from the Vice Chairman’s 2021 USO Tour, where he was able to engage with service members face to face. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

As the current SEAC, Colón-López is never out of the spotlight, and he views keeping the troops informed as the SEAC’s primary duty. 

“The first thing I promised the troops when I got sworn in to my current position,” he said, “was to keep arming them with facts so they can stay focused on the mission.”

In order to carry out that mission, Colón-López brings subject-matter experts with differing views onto the podcast. He has no aversions to confrontation but keeps the podcast conversational, demonstrating how remaining civil and listening to differing viewpoints can broaden your own perspective and ultimately strengthens his intended audience.

“There’s a lot of smart people out there, and I think we need to get them in front of the 2.1 million people in the DOD and be able to get a different perspective on how we can improve and be more lethal.”

Mental Health
SEAC Colón-López speaks June 28, 2021, with Charles Hogue, a police officer wounded in the line of duty during a 2019 terrorist attack aboard Naval Air Station Pensacola. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Despite his deadly serious intention to constantly increase the DOD’s lethality, Colón-López never passes on an opportunity to put smiles on the faces of service members. Whether that means strapping on a guitar during the 2021 USO Tour or answering the challenge during a break dance competition, he always steps up. 

Colón-López joked that he swallowed his pride a long time ago, but letting go of his ego has also helped him address his issues with TBI and PTS. Addressing mental health struggles is something Colón-López views as no different than any kind of regular maintenance.

“There’s a badge of honor to being able to endure and embrace the suck, but at some point the wheels start to come off. And if you don’t check yourself, man, you’re going to be in a very bad position in your life,” he said.

He described how many operators he worked with over the years were hesitant to come forward about their own mental health issues, mostly out of fear it might damage their reputation or negatively impact their teams. 

“That’s all bull,” he said. “We need maintenance like any other weapon system. So I need to make sure that as the senior enlisted leader I come forward, telling them that it’s okay to get help, and it’s good to get help.” 

Mental Health
SEAC Colón-López preparing to perform on stage during the 2021 USO Tour, June 29, 2021. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.

While traveling with the Vice Chairman’s 2021 USO Tour, Colón-López spoke bluntly with soldiers around the country about addressing mental health concerns from a leadership perspective. To him, getting help is not something that commands can hold against their troops — but rather it’s a necessary step in preparing for future conflicts. 

With the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, Colón-López thinks the DOD will have more time to spend on ensuring service members have the mental health care they need. 

“We are resetting for the bigger fight, and part of that is making sure the human weapon system is also serviced,” he says. 

As COVID-19 restrictions continue to lift, Colón-López plans to pull back on social media engagements in favor of visiting service members face to face. But despite putting less content on the internet, he insists Bottom Line Up Front will maintain a steady stream of new guests.

Read Next: Steve McQueen Was a Brig-Rat Marine Legend Before He Became Hollywood’s ‘King of Cool’

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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