A slim volume called “Still Coming Home,” an anthology of written works by local military veterans, grew out of the Denver Veterans Writing Workshop, which started in 2014. It was inspired by former Chairman Will Adams of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Vietnam veteran and philosophy scholar.
“Explore the experience of war through the lens of the humanities,” he suggested. Can a veteran truly come home? Writing can help, Adams said.
Veterans Jason Arment and Stephen Dunn asked Colorado Humanities for assistance with starting the Denver workshop in 2016. Because Colorado Humanities had recently been awarded an Arts in Society grant, funded by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, Colorado Creative Industries and the Hemera Foundation (Boulder), it was able to say yes, and the workshop started in 2016.
Centennial resident Kristine Otero has regularly attended the once-a-month Sunday afternoon sessions and plans to continue. Her memory piece in “Still Coming Home” is called “Out of Death: The Birth of a Combat Veteran.” It pushes into a reader’s mind and stays there.
We met for coffee and conversation recently.
Writing is what Otero needs to do, and a memoir of her war experiences is in process. She also is submitting short pieces regularly to 0-Dark-Thirty, an online magazine for the military, and elsewhere. Otero served on active duty with the Army from 2003-07, then in the Texas National Guard until 2010, when she was honorably discharged. She has an undergraduate degree in psychology from Liberty University and has started on a master’s degree in public administration through American Military University.
Her piece begins: “Prior to joining the Army, I existed as an extroverted, irresponsible girl of 22. I will refer to her as `she’ because we don’t have much in common except our shell … She was desperate, grasping at anything that would hold her long enough to trap her and save her from her life. A contractual obligation to the Army did just that.” And more …
“To be able to hide in the middle of a group only made me stronger.”
The articulate Otero, who is 5 feet tall and very slender — but all muscle — lived in Germany for a couple years and was deployed to Iraq twice as a machine gunner. A machine gun fortunately broke down into three pieces so she was able to get it mounted without assistance. “By the time we deployed to Iraq, my world was so small that all I could see were the front and rear gun trucks — of the convoy. Nothing else mattered.”
“Misogyny, sexism, gender inequality — it all exists in the military, but I tried not to let it affect me. For females, for me, this meant I had to try harder at everything. I had to prove I was big enough, strong enough and tough enough mentally … My NCOs joked about selling me to the local nationals for a goat and two tomatoes. I only wanted one of the tomatoes …
“My battle buddy Joey Otero and I decided we loved each other enough to get married so that we could at least be together for the next few years, versus being stationed in separate places. Knowing I was lesbian, we agreed our marriage would be a partnership of two best friends, willing to try their hardest for each other.”
She credits him with saving her life. (They are no longer married, but remain close friends.)
“Having each other made the transition into the civilian world less shocking … Although I don’t know for sure where problems begin for veterans, I do know that very little of our thinking translates over to mundane life after combat. Almost immediately, I realized I operated in a fight-or-flight mode all the time. I operate in crisis mode all the time, but to the outside world it comes across as neurotic, a little obsessive-compulsive... In my PTSD brain, if everything is life or death, there is no room for error, no in-between. Days must be regimented and follow a routine, a predetermined plan, and executed as if my survival depends on it …”
To her family, it seems “dramatic and unreasonable …”
As we spoke, Otero would periodically relax a bit, smile and speak happily of her fiancée and upcoming marriage — a wedding celebration at the beautiful Arvada Center is planned, and focus on that brings a change in her face and eyes. Close Army friends from across the country plan to be here with her — and Joey Otero will be her bridesmaid!
Contributors to the anthology have appeared at several locations in the area to share stories with an audience, including The Bookbar in Berkley. Also included is the Colorado Photographic Arts Center at 1070 Bannock St., where those who completed a 2018 Veterans Photographic Workshop series have exhibited work.
Otero and others will appear at March 2 at Ross Branch Library, 305 Milwaukee St., in Cherry Creek.
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