Operation Warm Heart – A chance at hope

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Kaitlin Castillo
  • Space Base Delta 1 Public Affairs

It started slowly at first, the self-doubt and depression. The feelings of isolation and hopelessness began to grow … Then it hit me all at once like a speeding train. 

The pills in my medicine cabinet seemed to call out my name, and I began to count them, imagining the calm and silence that would follow if I swallowed each one. 

Everyone around me kept insisting they were on my side, but I didn’t believe anyone truly cared until I met my new First Sergeant, Master Sgt. Tom Hallanger. He showed up, concern in his eyes, and spoke to me like a father would, listening, as I sobbed in my dorm room. His caring and empathetic demeanor slowly melted the icy exterior I had built up to protect myself. It was the first time someone’s concern felt genuine, and I felt my pain was seen. 

After a life-changing conversation with Hallanger and the chaplain, I decided to enroll in an inpatient mental-health treatment facility, despite my fear of jeopardizing my military career. 

During my stay at the treatment facility, I spoke to my mom every chance I could. I used my time with her to explain past trauma I kept hidden for years. I didn’t want to hide anymore, and I no longer felt like I had to. After many long and difficult conversations, my mother decided to come stay with me for a month in Colorado after my treatment. 

I knew it would be financially difficult, since my family always struggled to make ends meet, but after the loneliest year of my entire life I wanted nothing more than to spend time with her. We looked for every opportunity to make things cheaper but continued to come up short… I slowly began to lose hope. 

Hallanger continued to check in on me throughout my stay. During one of our phone calls, I explained my family’s financial situation. I simply wanted someone to confide in and to hear my frustration, but I didn’t want my mom to know how disappointed I was that she might not be able to visit. 

About two weeks before my release date, Hallanger called once more. The First Sergeants Council had gathered to hear my story. They offered $500 in donations from Operation Warm Heart and other resources. An entire month’s stay at the lodging on Peterson was arranged and paid for. They even provided two gift cards for groceries and extra money to be spent on activities. 

At first, I could hardly believe the extent of support they offered. The fact that people listened to my story and wanted to help me was incredible.  

That time with my mom provided by Operation Warm Heart was exactly what I needed to heal. She let me cry and didn’t judge me. She gave me the grace that I never gave myself on my bad days. I will forever be grateful to Master Sgt. Hallanger, the Chaplain, my family and everyone who helped me through one of the darkest moments of my life. 

Mental health isn’t something that is entirely black and white. Loneliness is a slow buildup that will erupt in ugly ways if left ignored for too long. Serving in the military and subsequently being away from home isn’t the easiest for everyone, including me. Getting the help I needed gave me the opportunity to meet others with similar struggles, and we grew together in those 40 days.  

Family is invaluable to me, and I’m grateful to have made a home away from home. 

For those who have begun to recognize signs of despair, don’t wait until the last minute if you need assistance. Help is available through many resources on base. You might be surprised by the people who offer a helping hand when you need it the most. 

Operation Warm Heart is run by the First Sergeants Council throughout the month of December and donations provide relief during emergencies for Airmen and Guardians. Last year, the non-profit organization raised about $25,000. This resource is available to junior enlisted Airmen and Guardians in need of assistance all year round. If you would like to donate, volunteers will be in front of the Commissary and Base Exchange or a booth will be available indoors.