Veterans Voices: ‘You have to want to make a change,’ Vet shares his battle with mental illness

Veterans Voices

PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — John Van Winkle is a Panama and Desert Storm veteran, who served in the 86th Airborne Division.

He joined the military in 1985 at the age of 16. He said he was a “lone wolf” as a teenager, living in Pekin, and he wanted the independence the military could offer.

But, when he left the military, it was hard to find work.

“The jobs that I started out with in the military were not the jobs I was doing when I got out. And that made it very hard for me to find employment,” he said.

He worked at factories until he scored a job as a welder at Caterpillar.

During his job search, he met his wife, and had three children. At that time, Van Winkle was the sole breadwinner for the family.

But, the success didn’t last forever. In 2014, he was laid off.

Being registered with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) could have helped him find employment and services, but Van Winkle had never registered.

“I didn’t have any issues with the military. I didn’t have a medical profile, I didn’t have an injury, I wasn’t disabled from the military. So I didn’t think the VA as a whole could do anything for me,” he said.

After moving his family to South Dakota, he finally registered with the VA at the advice of a friend.

“[I] started therapy, medication, and from there it was like it opened new doorways. But at the same time, it also started some serious problems [for] me,” he said.

His personality began to change and things from his past, particularly from his time in the military, came to the surface.

After a period of time, his family moved back to Peoria, but he and his wife divorced, and he no longer lived with his children.

“Daddy wasn’t the same person he was as they were growing up,” he said upon reflection.

While his family moved into a shelter, he moved into Veteran’s Haven in Peoria, where he shared housing with 15 other male veterans. While there, he came to the realization he needed to get help.

“You have to want to make a change in order for the change to be made,” he said.

His program schedule with Veteran’s Haven led him to Goodwill Commons in Peoria, where he met Jonna Wagner, who put him in contact with a Veteran’s Service Officer associated with Goodwill.

As much as he wanted to make a change in his life by himself, it was the workers at Goodwill who offered the help and resources he needed that made the difference.

“I climbed out of a very deep hole, but I also didn’t do it by myself,” he said.

Van Winkle is very proud of the fact that he never turned to drugs or alcohol, and said he hates the stereotype that veterans often become suicidal or dependent on drugs.

Instead, he turned to a different source for relief.

“I had become a different person when I started therapy, [especially] with … dealing with nightmares and night terrors,” he said.

After registering with the VA, he received a health summary of his conditions. Two decades after leaving the military, Van Winkle had a new perspective on why his mental health took a toll when it came to what happened abroad.

“What I did in the military was use weaponry that was designed for military vehicles, aircraft or land, against people,” he said. “I never really faced it.”

One memory that still haunts him took place during a military “clearing.”

“I never faced what I did, what my job was, what orders I was given. And the one thing that stuck out the most, I must have blocked out for two decades,” he said. “The bodies were not the size of an adult. They were children.”

As a parent, that memory became a nightmare for him.

However, he was determined to overcome this obstacle, and with the help of Goodwill staff, he was able to.

Initially, all Van Winkle owned was jeans and a t-shirt, but Goodwill was able to give him interview attire to help him in the job search.

A benefit pass for CityLink was secured, and he was offered more help than he ever knew he needed, he said.

Van Winkle said he appreciates everything the staff at Goodwill did, but what meant the most to him was their candor.

They never talked down to him.

“The overall theme that I have associated with Goodwill is that I wanted the help and I needed the help, but they offered the help,” he said.

Now, Van Winkle has his own apartment and does freelance handy work. Life is improving, he said, and he has no regrets regarding his military service. Instead, he’s looking on the bright side and sharing his story in hopes of inspiring veterans to seek the help they need.

“I would say to another veteran, whether he was seeking help or not: reach out,” he said. “The thing I’ve learned was you have to reach out. You have to want the help.”

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