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Latina Veteran Pursues Healing Through Poetry Why She Focuses on Mental Health and Activism

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7 minute read

Lucky Garcia felt like she never fit in.

The war veteran-turned-poet has endured many difficulties in life, but today her writing has become more than a passion – it’s therapy. Writing about war – and her life during and after – helps her connect with the world around her.

“It’s now part of the fabric that makes me,” Garcia said. 

She came from a long line of soldiers – her grandfather and uncle were in the military – and one specific day cemented her decision to enlist. When she was about 10 years old, Garcia gathered with her family in a Colorado airport to welcome her uncle back home from Saudi Arabia after serving in the Gulf War.

“Everybody was crying and beaming with pride, joy and honor,” she said. 

That feeling stuck with her. Although Garcia didn’t know what being a soldier would be like, she enlisted to make her family proud. 

She enlisted in 1999, at the height of abuse toward LGBTQ people in the military. She ended up coming out a year after she enlisted, not knowing how the LGBTQ community was being treated at the time.

Garcia in uniform as she entered her first Iraq tour. (Contributed | Lucky Garcia)

Looking back on it now, she wishes she had come out as a teen. If she had, Garcia believes she wouldn’t have chosen the military life. Because instead of pride, she returned home only to be diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Today, her memories of war and navigating civilian life fuel her art. The trajectory of her life has been a series of twists and turns, from the Denver mountains to the Iraq desert and, ultimately, to activism and poetry in Kansas City.

‘Granola girl’

Garcia was born in Colorado a week before Christmas. She was brought home in a Christmas stocking. 

She was raised by her mom, two sets of grandparents, and aunts and uncles because “we Latinos take care of our own,” she said. Her father wasn’t in the picture, having skipped out as soon as he found out that her mom was pregnant. 

As a child, Garcia was athletic and booksmart. She’s a self-professed “granola girl.” But she knew she was “different” at a young age.

Lucky Garcia (standing) with her mom and sister at about three years old. (Contributed | Lucky Garcia)

When she was eight years old, Garcia fell in love with a girl in her third-grade class. Eventually, Garcia asked the friend if she wanted to run away with her and get married. The friend turned her down. This was Garcia’s first heartbreak.

That year was a turning point in her life. Not only was it the first time she fell in love, but it was also when she began to care for her two younger siblings while her mom was away at work. Garcia describes it as the time her youth ended.

But her mom said she was constantly in awe of her daughter’s resilience. One year, for instance, Garcia’s dad was supposed to call and write to her but never did. 

“He broke her little heart,” said her mom, who didn’t want to be named for safety reasons.

“But she bounced back. That’s the thing about (Lucky).”

In her teen years, Garcia participated in the League of United Latin American Citizens and helped implement environmentally conscious programs at her high school. 

But she struggled to connect with others. Growing up in the 1990s, Lucky didn’t know any gay people and her high school didn’t yet have a gay alliance. 

“I think had I come out as a teenager, that whole part of my life wouldn’t have happened,” Garcia said, referring to her life in the Army. “I think I would have explored the things that I loved more, the things I really wanted to put my time and heart into.”

“Had I come out as a teenager, that whole part of my life wouldn’t have happened.”

Lucky garcia on her identity

Such as writing. Garcia had always been a writer, garnering praise from her teachers and winning awards. But it wasn’t practical come time for college.

Her family was unable to pay for her college tuition, but Garcia landed academic scholarships and played soccer in college. Then a severe knee injury put a halt to her soccer career.

Becoming a soldier then seemed like the next best option.

‘I was terrified’

She knew that being a soldier would be difficult. 

Her uncle and grandfather told her about their run-ins with racial discrimination and even tried to discourage her from joining the Army. But at the time she felt a sense of duty to make her family proud.

In basic training, Garcia was relieved to see so many brown and black soldiers. But that relief soon turned to distrust. She and her minority colleagues were treated differently. She’d experience her own run-ins with racial and gender discrimination.

Basic training broke her down, teaching her how to follow instructions and fight for their country. And when she went to Iraq, things got worse. During a cultural sensitivity training session before deployment, a fellow soldier asked a general how to identify who to kill. The general, who was white, answered, “If you see a brown person without this uniform.”

“That was the biggest first-fear moment because I looked at myself,” Garcia said. “For two years I didn’t take off my uniform at all. I was terrified.”

That fear was compounded by rampant sexual assault against women, a pervasive issue in the military. She slept in her uniform and refused to wear civilian or lounge clothes in the barracks. It was exhausting, she said. 

Having no one to turn to, Garcia kept to herself. That is until one day she spotted a plain sign: “Women’s Group. 7 p.m. Friday.”

Lucky Garcia was out walking to the gym when she spotted a sign for a women’s group in Iraq. (Cole Blaise | Flatland)

“What was supposed to be a relief valve, became a sexual assault survivors support group. Women came out of the woodwork,” she said. “They all had the same story.”

Garcia had fake boyfriends to keep potential attackers at bay. Although her family knew, she asked them to keep her sexual orientation a secret. She was already a brown woman. Being openly gay was an added risk. 

“It wasn’t about losing my job, it was about losing my life then,” she said. 

Garcia would spend eight years in the Army, from 1999 to 2007, and fought in the Iraq war. 

PTSD and Poetry

Garcia came home broken. 

She began to engage in destructive behavior that would isolate her from family, her then-wife and friends. Then she was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder in 2013. Year after year, from 2013 through 2016, she lost it all. Her 10-year marriage, her job and her home. 

She didn’t want to live. Every year, Veterans Day was particularly difficult. Her mom couldn’t bear what her daughter was going through, remembering one distraught phone call where her daughter said her only reason for living was her mom.

“Only this year and last year have I been able to start thinking about the future and really want to live,” Garcia said.

Adjusting to civilian life wasn’t easy, and Garcia explained that the Veterans Administration (VA) did a poor job helping her. Filing for VA benefits and seeking mental health help was a complicated, drawn-out process.

In Garcia’s case, though a private physician diagnosed her with hearing problems and PTSD related to her military service, VA doctors disagreed. Because she couldn’t get care at the VA, she’s paying for therapy out of pocket.    

“It’s almost like we’re hidden and invisible,” Garcia said. “After the glory of war and imperialism, it’s like nobody cares.” 

An audit report by the VA inspector general revealed that more than “half of the denied military sexual trauma claims” were processed incorrectly. This potentially resulted in “undue stress to veterans,” which left veterans without the benefits to get the help they need. Since the audit conducted in 2018, the Veterans Benefits Administration has implemented new training methods and reprocessed denied claims, among other changes.

For almost 10 years, Garcia felt aimless. Then one night, there was a shooting in her block in Kansas City. It triggered her, but this time she funneled her thoughts into a poem called “Killer City.” She wrote and wrote, comparing her neighborhood to fighting in a war. 

“Writing and specifically poetry has been one of the bravest things that I think I have done,” Garcia said. “I know that sounds weird coming from a soldier having fought in a war.”

“Writing and specifically poetry has been one of the bravest things that I think I have done.”

Lucky garcia on life after the army

Most of what she writes is not about war as much as coming back. And it’s helped Garcia begin to heal, said her friend Dawn Oliver-Dysart, who is a paralegal in Kansas City.

“It motivates her to do the work necessary for her own healing and the work necessary for the healing and empowerment of others,” Oliver-Dysart said.

Poetry and activism have been transformative for Garcia. She’s become a beacon for other women veterans and people-of-color artists. From where Oliver-Dysart sits, Garcia taking control of her life and her body after being in the Army was the catalyst for her art and activism.

Three years ago, Garcia helped form La Resistencia – a group for creative people of color. She had started to write poetry again for about a year when they encouraged her to perform in February of 2017. Since then, she’s been a permanent member.

In 2016, she co-founded a group called Brown Voices/Brown Pulse for queer and trans people of color after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. She has dedicated her life to advocating for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, racial justice, among other things.

Ultimately, poetry is her megaphone.

“I’m using my skills and experience in the military to fight that system,” she said. “(My ancestors) survived genocide, they survived slavery and I continue to fight for racial justice.” 

Years of not fitting in – in school hopelessly in love, or in the military disconnected from those around her – has become fodder for her poetry and activism. 

Responding to a comment about her life coming full circle, Garcia’s eyes welled up with tears because, she said, she’s finally found a place with La Resistencia.

“We really are a family,” she said. “Being a war veteran you never feel safe, ever. Very rarely do I find safe places, and I have with this group.”

Lucky Garcia, veteran, poet and activist, finally fits in.

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