RAF Lakenheath --
His marriage ended on ugly terms. He had been depressed for months. He feared negative consequences to his career so he shared little of what he was going through with his friends and supervisor. Then, Senior Airman Michael Drinkwater made a plan that finally gave him a sense of relief. But, it wasn’t relief from a plan to get well. Instead, Drinkwater had made a plan to end his life.
“[I was] almost romanticizing it, thinking about it quite a lot and putting together a plan. And in those two weeks where I had a plan, I felt more relief that I had in months,” said Drinkwater.
At the time of his crisis while stationed at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Drinkwater lived on the same street as his supervisor. He said they had talked a little about some of his problems. Drinkwater admits, though, he was not completely forthcoming about his mental state because of his supervisor’s duty to warn if there was a chance he could do harm to himself or anyone else.
Despite Drinkwater’s efforts to keep his struggles to himself, his supervisor, then Staff Sgt. Daniel Rakowski, decided to check up on his Airman. That decision saved Drinkwater’s life. Rakowski found him in the garage moments before he could go through with the planned suicide.
“I credit so much to him,” Drinkwater said. “He quite literally picked me up off the ground.”
After that, Drinkwater said, they sat in his living room just talking for a while. Rakowski then took the lead in getting Drinkwater the help he needed, including an appointment for the same day at the behavioral health clinic. Drinkwater was assigned critical care and was prescribed semi-permanent acupuncture.
“Which I absolutely did not believe in when I went into it,” Drinkwater said. “But I’m a firm believer now.”
The clinic also prescribed medication for Drinkwater’s depression, and he started therapy - twice a week at first, and then later, just once a week. He said it took about two months before he began to feel better. Through the entire ordeal, Drinkwater said he had Rakowski’s full support.
“I could never show enough gratitude for everything he did for me, and his wife as well. They kind of took me in,” Drinkwater said.
Drinkwater also gives credit to one of his closest friends, who is now a Staff Sergeant in San Antonio.
“He wasn’t in my chain of command,” Drinkwater said, “but I was able to lean on him for just about anything.
Same thing with my supervisor at the time. So they obviously played a huge part in it with work. My supervisor especially but also my flight chief and my NCOIC. I was just super fortunate to have such a great chain of command in Alaska.”
Still, Drinkwater struggled. He had a relapse several months into his therapy. So much so that he began having suicidal thoughts again. This time, thankfully he notes, he got a lot of knocks at his door as people came to check up on him.
Drinkwater said he continued to push through, going to therapy, taking medication and continuing acupuncture. Eventually he was cleared to PCS to Moron, Spain. Although he was initially excited about the new location, it created another set of problems.
“I felt like I lost my support system, and that was tough. I kind of didn’t feel comfortable going to anyone for a while. I made some poor choices – started drinking fairly heavily, stuff like that. It took me a long time to reach out when I got there,” he said.
Drinkwater described his experience in Spain as hitting “rock bottom.” He said he had kind of given up and his work performance declined, as well as incurring a physical training failure. That’s when his superintendent stepped in to ask what was going on.
“So I ended up opening up to her, and telling her everything,” Drinkwater said. “She was obviously looking out for me, and got me all the care I needed.”
This time he was seen by Navy doctors, who adjusted his medication. He also continued therapy through the chaplaincy and Military Family Life Consultant. Then, once he was considered stable, he was picked up for two temporary duties – one was with an Expeditionary Sight Survey and the other was to support a deployed mission as the contracting officer. Drinkwater was proud of the accomplishment.
He said, “They saw enough in me to send me. But it also helped with the depression, the stress and mission focus and all of that stuff. I found it really helped for the time being.”
But after coming back to Moron, Drinkwater said he started feeling depressed again. He was one of the lower ranking Airmen at the installation, and felt his work just not as fulfilling as what he experienced during his temporary assignments.
“I ended up essentially being given a choice of continuing to go through the steps and go through all of this with mental healthcare, with the Navy, and probably start the med-board process,” Drinkwater said. “Or I was given the option to basically just take my PCS because I already had an assignment to Lakenheath, where I would have access to Air Force mental healthcare on base.”
Drinkwater chose the latter option and also made a conscious choice to work a little harder at becoming more resilient. He moved to Lakenheath about a half year ago, and started seeing a different provider, eventually getting off medication.
He said, “I kind of just changed a lot of habits and things within my own life, within myself and in all honesty, I haven’t looked back since.”
Drinkwater is originally from England so it feels like home to him. He now has family nearby, who he said have been a huge support system. He said he works with a great team of Airmen and is upbeat about the future. That’s a big change from four years ago when he first sought mental help. He said he initially didn’t want to talk at all about his experiences in Alaska and Spain, his struggle with depression and anxiety, and how difficult it was to begin the process all over again as he moved from one installation to another.
“I kind of started talking about it, kind of sharing the feelings, and also the processes and everything. And I found that helped people either build the courage to ask for help, or open up, or it just helped them know they are not alone,” he said.
Drinkwater also has some advice for supervisors and leaders who may encounter Airmen under similar circumstances, urging them to “have their people’s back.” He said he was very fortunate to have supervisors who stood up for him and helped him get the professional help he needed.
“I can’t say going into the mental health system isn’t going to hurt you in any way career-wise because there are stories and experiences out there,” he said. “Not everyone’s story is the same.”
However, Drinkwater said he’s incredibly excited by some of the ideas the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force is trying to implement. Drinkwater said if the changes come about, he thinks more Airmen would be open to seeking mental healthcare.
He said, “At the end of the day you have to take care of yourself and your troops, and the people that work for you and with you. And again at the end of the day, you have to put yourself first. Life is more than just career, but it shouldn’t be one or the other.”
Still stationed at Lakenheath as a contracting officer, Drinkwater no longer needs medication for his depression. He has made some major changes in his life, including stopping excessive drinking, working out more and losing weight. He has also found a new passion for art photography, trading what he called his bad habits for something more expressive and creative. He is also ready to talk to anyone who will listen about his experiences with mental healthcare in order to help break the stigma surrounding it.