Malmstrom chaplain shares story of contemplating suicide

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- Chaplain (Capt.) John VanderKaay knows what it is like to contemplate suicide. He also knows what it's like to seek help for his feelings and begin the healing process. He has been there and shares his story with anyone it might help.

Three months after returning from a tour in Iraq, he made a permanent change-of-station move to Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., and started settling in to his new job and new surroundings.

Several months later, he said he started to see "dark areas" of his life and he would react in ways that were uncharacteristic of him.

He said he couldn't understand these dark areas, so he opened up to his leaders about his feelings and they encouraged him to talk to a mental health provider about them.

"John, that sounds an awful lot like (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I think you should go and talk with the professionals," Chaplain VanderKaay said he was told.

The chaplain was diagnosed with PTSD and began attending counseling sessions, but these counseling sessions were short-lived.

Not long into his counseling, Hurricane Katrina struck.

"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."

After the hurricane, he said he went to numerous houses of wives of deployed Airmen only to witness the same fate -- they had lost everything to Katrina and they turned to him for comfort.

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

Eventually he received orders to a new base. However, the trauma of the Hurricane Katrina experiences led to a second diagnosis of PTSD.

"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, the chaplain turned to his leaders 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. As a result, he came face to face with the perceived stigma of 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."

Chaplain VanderKaay said he was singled out with negative treatment on duty.

He said he wasn't always treated fairly, but he was determined 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.

He said his family was his first priority, but he also wanted to get better so he could get back in the fight.

"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, the chaplain 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 a mental health professional.

"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, "Counseling Services for DOD Military, Guard and Reserve, Certain Affiliated Personnel, and Their Family Members," placed, in writing, the need for commanders and leaders to support military members who seek mental health assistance to enhance coping and build resilience in themselves. It also sets the guidelines for eliminating barriers to and the negative stigma associated with seeking counseling support, encouraging leaders to view it as a force multiplier enhancing military and family readiness.

"Only a small percentage of suicidal people really wants to commit suicide," the chaplain said. "They have just lost all hope and don't know how to live with what is happening or has happened. 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."