MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan.— One McConnell boom operator has made it her mission to improve the mental health of her fellow Airmen and members of the local community.
Tech. Sgt. Chelsey Thornhill is a 350th Air Refueling Squadron boom operator currently acting as 22nd Air Refueling Wing Complaints and Resolutions noncommissioned officer in charge. In her free time, she works as a psychologist.
“I started working on the degree after I joined the Air Force,” said Thornhill. “I graduated early from high school so I could join, and after a few years of flying the line and learning my job, I decided to expand my education into something that would benefit me and the Air Force. I wanted to become a strong supervisor and learn to communicate effectively, so I enrolled in a bachelor’s program for psychology. From there, my passion grew.
Thornhill holds a master’s degree in community and trauma counseling and has begun the process of obtaining her doctorate in clinical psychology. She’s worked in the field for around three years.
“I want to work with people,” Thornhill said. “I love engaging people in conversation and learning about their lives. I enjoy being able to guide someone through a trauma timeline, which leads to understanding and growing as a person.”
Thornhill puts her knowledge to the test and uses it to make her a better Airman and leader, and Lt. Col. Kyle Benwitz, Thornhill’s prior commander at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, watched her do just that.
“As a noncommissioned officer and senior enlisted leader, your business is Airmen and the mission,” Benwitz said. “Some folks are able to do one or the other, but Tech. Sgt. Thornhill is able to do both. Relating to your Airmen requires an ability to understand the whole person, and a psychologist’s skills provide that bridge.
“She dedicated her time to educate our squadron on mental health issues and resiliency necessary for our well-being,” he continued. “She understood the concepts being used by Green Dot and other programs and was able to communicate the knowledge in layman’s terms to all of us. Thornhill has an innate talent to relate to people, and she can provide an ear to listen or the motivation to move out and get the mission done.”
Thornhill doesn’t stop at helping Airmen though: She dedicates herself to those in the community as well.
“While assigned to the 321st Contingency Response Squadron, she spent numerous hours every week at a women’s shelter to help women through personal difficulties or tragedies,” Benwitz said. “What struck me was the trust these women gave Thornhill and the commitment she showed them in return. Like all her work in uniform, she instilled confidence that she would take care of them; her psychologist skills allowed her to connect to individuals in a way that made them feel safe.”
Currently, Thornhill works as professional volunteer with HopeNet, a local charity that provides Christian-based counseling, and also started her own private practice in the area recently.
Thornhill has been in the Air Force for 15 years. She said she plans on remaining in the service while continuing her psychology career and helping other service members and veterans.
“My long-term plan is to provide military families and veterans psychological treatment pro bono,” she said. “The stigma around mental health affects the engagement people want to have with agencies, but I believe if you provide an avenue that has no connection to the military, many members might engage and receive the help that so many service members need.”
Thornhill said one of the most important things she’s learned is the importance of self-care, and she stresses that other Airmen need to be able to recognize issues and burn out in themselves.
“I think everyone struggles, and we all handle it in different ways,” said Thornhill. “The best approach to resiliency is knowing what makes you resilient and recognizing when you just can’t bounce back. It’s about learning to be okay when it feels you shouldn’t be okay and letting someone know when you are struggling, even if you’re just talking to your dog.
“The individuals working together should understand resiliency is different to everyone and so is the trauma and experiences people have. That is one of the things that makes the Air Force as diverse and accepting as it is.”