News: From depression, suicidal thoughts to retired chief
Story by Staff Sgt. Amber Kelly-Herard
SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. - After graduating from college, doctors didn't think Kathy Cooper would survive her depression, panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.
Twenty-seven years later, she is now a retired chief master sergeant.
"My doctor had tested me for depression, and he said I was so far off the scale they couldn't even score the test," said Cooper, who considers Springfield, Mo., her hometown. "My doctor said I was suicidal and placed me in a psychiatric hospital. Six weeks later, I had a $10,000 hospital bill, no job and basically started life all over again - and it was the best thing that could have ever happened."
Shortly after, Cooper was accepted into the Air Force as a flutist.
"My doctors told me not to join the Air Force, because I couldn't handle it," said Cooper. "But one doctor had faith in me and encouraged me to join."
While stationed at then Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, Cooper met an author at her local church, who encouraged her to write a book about her journey, leading to her book, "Solo Rising."
"The book is just a ministry tool to help get my story out to more people," she said. "My life's mission is to help other people know it's OK to ask for help."
While at Scott AFB in the U.S. Air Force Band of Mid-America, Cooper spoke at public forums such as Phoenix Stripe, a leadership conference for NCOs, and chief induction ceremonies to prove it can be done.
"I've had so many people pull me aside afterward and say, 'I thought I was the only one who felt that way,'" she said. "People will relay their own story and some have asked to meet with me privately, just to talk. Others have asked for my book to pass along to someone they know who is also struggling."
"I once received a call that one of our airmen was holding a gun to his mouth. I rushed over there and by the time I got there his friends had talked him into putting the gun down, but we got him to the hospital to get him help," she continued. "He was refusing to go to the hospital, but after I shared my story with him of my own struggles, he finally relented. Today he is doing great."
Cooper knows from experience how helpful it is seeing someone make it.
"When I was in the hospital, I saw someone who was in the same predicament as me come out fine, and I thought, 'if she can do it, so can I,'" she said. "Now I want people to see you can get help and still thrive, progress and even make chief. Throughout my career, I have continued to struggle with depression and anxiety, but I now know how to deal with it and I'm surrounded by friends and family who provide me a great support system."
In coming full circle, at Cooper's retirement ceremony, the doctor who encouraged her to join the Air Force pinned on her retirement pin.
"He's the one who believed in me and told me not to listen to everyone else," she said. "Going from near death to retiring as a chief master sergeant, I felt it was appropriate my doctor would do the honors.
'We all struggle and it doesn't have to be combat-related," she continued. "We all struggle with different things and there are a lot of pressures that face each of us every day and in different ways. It is only by God's grace that I am here today and I am grateful to Him every day."
Now that the chief's retired, she will finish her Master of Arts in biblical theology and become a missionary.