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Air Force veteran overcomes mental health battles and homelessness with help from VA

Posted: 12:26 PM, May 28, 2019
Updated: 2019-05-29 02:42:05Z

MOUNTAIN HOME, Idaho — According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) , women are now the fastest growing subgroup of US veterans. Now, medical centers across the nation are providing an integrative health model made personalized for women, including holistic approaches to treatment.

But women also face greater health-related challenges after military service compared to their male counterparts-- including depression and suicide-- and many are not getting the help they need, according to the US Air Force .

But Ssgt. Crystal Dunkin, Munitions Systems, USAF (retired), says those services helped save her life-- and that she's now helping guide other vets to get help.

It wasn't an easy road for Dunkin.

"Wearing that uniform and having all that pride and... ugh, yes! It was so cool," said Dunkin.

She says she spent almost 16 years in the Air Force, often overseas handling bombs, bullets, and missiles.

"If you wanted it done and done right the first time, they went to Sgt. Dunkin. And it happened," said Dunkin.

That is-- until her mental health started taking a hit.

"I've had several suicide attempts. I even had one when I was in the military in Saudi Arabia, and that didn't work... I was like 'God-- I'm up? I'm still here?'"

This eventually led to the Air Force granting her honorable discharge in 2003.

"When you're in the military, you put that uniform on, it's like breathing."

She was hospitalized, her military salary was reduced, and she ended up homeless.

"I never wanted to be a hindrance on anybody. I wanted to set an example. I think I always have."

But after she says she fell into patterns of abusing alcohol in the late 2000s, she again took herself to the Boise VA Medical Center... and found things had changed. In a holistic, dual diagnosis program (Dunkin's diagnoses included major depressive disorder and substance use), the VA connected her to a psychiatrist, therapist, primary care doctor, and group therapies.

"Well it's just like using the military-- we've got five branches and everybody always forgets the coast guard, but we couldn't get the job done if it wasn't for all of these branches, ya know? So the patient-aligned care team here-- you've got each of these resources all tied together. And, we're not going to get better unless we use all these together," said Dunkin.

Just two years ago she managed to clean up her credit enough to use her VA home loan to buy her first house in a town quite familiar to her: Mountain Home.

"We were just happy campers, man! It's like, look, you've got your own roof, you've got your own dirt! That's good!"

Now she spends her time volunteering with the Boise Police Department and veteran peer support groups.

"And that's just the way veterans think innately-- it's like-- OK, these people did that for me, now I'm gonna do this for these people," said Dunkin.

Now a homeowner, Dunkin is back on her own two feet. She says her mind will still wander to dark places, but her treatment helped her recognize those thoughts-- and identify when and who to reach out to for help.

If you or someone you know is exhibiting warning signs or having thoughts of suicide, text or call the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at (208) 398-4357 to get 24/7 confidential help from professionals.