Malmstrom chaplain shares story of seeking Mental Health assistance

  • Published
  • By Valerie Mullett
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
Chaplain (Capt.) John VanderKaay knows what it is like to be suicidal. He also knows what it's like to seek help for those feelings and begin the healing process. He has been there and is honored to share his story with anyone that it might help.

Three months after returning from a tour in Iraq, he PCS'd to Keesler AFB, Miss., and started settling in to his new job and new surroundings. Several months later, he started to see, what he calls, "dark areas" of his life. He would react in ways that were uncharacteristic of him.

He couldn't understand these "dark areas" so he opened up to his leadership about his feelings and they encouraged him to talk to Mental Health about them.

"John, that sounds an awful lot like PTSD, I think you should go and talk with the professionals," Chaplain VanderKaay recalled being told.

He did go and talk with professionals and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Counseling to help treat it began shortly afterwards. But his counseling sessions were short-lived.

Not long into his counseling, Hurricane Katrina hit Keesler.

"The hospital was destroyed and mental health providers, among many others, were sent away," Chaplain VanderKaay said. "I was there for 10 months after that and there was no opportunity for me to deal with any of 'my stuff.' There were incredible needs (of others) after the devastation. My 'stuff' had to wait."

He and his family were forced to shelter on the installation for eight days. During that time, he said he went into house after house with wives of deployed Airmen only to be met with the same fate -- they had lost everything to Katrina.

Perhaps feeling the comfort from the cross on his uniform, these wives would turn to the caregiver and wail.

"I did this house after house and it weighed on me," Chaplain VanderKaay said.

He remembers dreading opening the front door of his own home, fearing he had lost everything, as well.

The trauma from the Hurricane Katrina experiences led to a second diagnosis of PTSD when he finally PCS'd from there.

"When I got to my next duty station, I was full; I was over-flowing," he said. "I needed to start taking care of my 'stuff.'"

So once again, he turned to his leadership and told his story, expecting to get the same support he had gotten prior to his first diagnosis.

Instead, he was met with mindsets that thought chaplains shouldn't need help. They should only give help. That only increased the pressures he was feeling and trying to get help for. He came face to face with the stigma against receiving mental help.

"I learned to compartmentalize and separate my pain so I could continue to give help to others," he said. "Many times I would go to my counseling session and return to my office where others would be waiting for counseling from me."

During his rough time, he said he always kept a picture of his wife and children nearby.

Chaplain VanderKaay was singled out with negative treatment on duty. He wasn't always treated fairly but he was determined, none-the-less to get the help he needed.

"I put things into perspective and decided that I had to get help because I had to be there for them," he said. "Keeping faith in that perspective kept me focused because there were times when I lost hope in the system."

That tenacity is what he credits with a successful recovery.

His family may have been his first priority. But he also wanted to get better so he could get back in the fight fully.

"I wanted to be able to do my job of helping others who needed me so they could get back in the fight and take care of the mission," he said.

Along his road to recovery, he also decided he wanted to be a champion for change.

He was afforded that opportunity when he attended the first Caring for People Forum where he presented a hypothetical situation of an Airman being mistreated on duty because the Airman sought help from Mental Health.

"I went to this forum with my story, 'I know an Airman who...' and everyone on the panel agreed that this Airman should never have been treated the way he was," Chaplain VanderKaay said. "So from that forum was born DoD Instruction 6490.06."

The DoD Instruction placed, in writing, the need for commanders and leadership to support military members who seek mental health assistance to enhance coping and build resilience in themselves. It also instructs the elimination of barriers to and the negative stigma associated with seeking counseling support; but rather encourages leaders to view it as a force multiplier enhancing military and family readiness.

"Only a small percentage of suicidal people really want to commit suicide. They have just lost all hope and don't know how to live with what is happening or has happened," the chaplain explained. "If I can be that one shroud of hope for them, then that is what I want to be. Having just one person who cares is giving back that hope."

"The message that needs to be told here is that, bottom line -- if you need help you need to get help," Chaplain VanderKaay said. "What you may encounter is of secondary importance, but it is not unimportant. You may or may not experience the stigma, but you need to get that laser beam intensity and say 'I need help and I'm going to do whatever it takes to get that help.' Hope and help are available."