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Chaplain battles demons through comedy

By Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard | 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | August 10, 2016

FORT EUSTIS, Va. -- As retired U.S. Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) James King walked up to a stranger’s home, his fingers rhythmically glide over his clammed palms and his skin tingles into a lighter tone. He knew the tears to come were unavoidable, and that he must knock on the door, gain his composure as he and another Soldier tell someone that the person they love died serving their country.

While part of King’s duties as a chaplain were to deliver this message and help people through other difficult situations, King said that the rate at which he had to do so became overwhelming due to recent contingency operations. To battle his plight, he sought help through traditional and non-traditional avenues including an all veteran comedy class.

“It’s vital, but to be there time after time, to see the family’s responses, to experience their pain and not be able to do anything about it because you just can’t change the basic fact that the one that they love is not going to come back alive is hard,” said King. “I went through some emotionally difficult things with their families, but I’m still here and I’m physically whole, so it’s hard to complain.”

After nearly two decades of taking in others’ pain and feeling helpless as his comrades were continuously sent to war, King said he realized that the buildup of emotions he carried needed to be addressed.

“I became aware that my life was becoming unmanageable, and that I was depressed,” explained King, “I was carrying things myself. I was bottling things up. I was isolating myself. I was not using healthy practices. I was not eating healthy. I was drinking more than I needed to, and I was letting things get to me that shouldn’t have. My wife and people close to me expressed concern and after initially not listening, I finally did.”

King received counseling and through that, found other avenues to relieve his stressors. One is the Armed Services Arts Partnership comedy boot camp, which provides veterans an artistic outlet to deal with issues in a safe and understanding environment.

“One of the things I am learning is that I can’t bottle things up, so I’m expressing some of my struggle through humor and it’s working so far,” said King.

Since starting the class in April 2016, King has not only performed in local comedy shows, but has taken the class as an opportunity to show others that it’s possible to overcome personal demons.

“Jim came in ready to be the best, but he helped everyone out,” said Fred McKinnon, U.S. Army veteran and comedy boot camp coach. “He took the class seriously. I think the sky’s the limit for him, if he puts forth the effort I could see him having a lot of success.”

But for King, the class was more than a place to showcase his talent, it was a salvation.

“Without the boot camp and counseling, I’d be an even bigger problem waiting to happen,” said King. “If I had not gotten help to find avenues to deal with the issues, they would still be bottled up inside me. And, the problem is that the more you bottle something up, the more the pressure builds.”

As a chaplain, King said he understands and has seen that people sometimes have difficulty identifying they have an issue or asking for help, but to him tackling such struggles can only make his brothers and sisters in arms stronger.

“If somebody wants to say that we are weak because we seek help, they’re just proving themselves weak,” said King. “We have sense enough to get help for everything else, we need to get help for our emotional, mental and psychological needs. When somebody seeks help we need to not only continue in the strides we’ve made with crushing the stigma, but we need to mitigate the punitive measures that sometimes accompany dysfunctional behaviors – that becomes a barrier to resiliency and self-defeating to our system.”

Editor's note: This is part three of a three part series featuring veterans who participate in a local arts program to battle stressors.
armed services arts partnership Army college of william and mary comedy coping coping skills Depression military PTSD resilience resiliency team Teamwork U.S. Army veteran veterans William and Mary