The sun is an army invading from the East.
That powerful sentence is the opening line in an essay titled “Ibrahim, my driver and my guide,” written by Army veteran Patrick Mondaca, whose service includes a deployment to Baghdad as a Sergeant with the Connecticut National Guard’s 143rd Police Company in 2003. Since leaving the service, Patrick returned to being a civilian cop, then became a field safety and security officer for a humanitarian organization in Darfur, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a writer, and a good friend of mine.
I first met Patrick in January 2015 when we both arrived at Wroxton, a converted Abbey turned college campus located northwest of London, as part of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. In that way that vets often do, Patrick and I developed an instant and easy affinity for each other–one that has survived in spite him being able to write me under the table. A renaissance man with a sharp wit, a penchant for whiskey that has as much to do with the lingering effects of service as it does with the drink itself, a sleeve of tattoos, and a shock of prematurely salt-and-pepper hair, Patrick is every inch the image of the modern, combat-tried veteran turned writer. An image he backs up as soon as he touches pen to paper. Although I focused on fiction and Patrick on nonfiction, we shared a creative nonfiction class that first semester and he wrote an on-the-spot piece about childhood, about running on a playground, imbued with such accuracy and vividness that, even though his exact words have left me, the youthful joy at the red dirt beneath their feet–and the awe and envy his work inspired in me–have not.
When a devastating motorcycle accident almost ended his life later that year, I feared for my friend. I feared that he would not recover, and also that the world would be cheated of his words. But Patrick is a fighter. He relearned how to walk and talk and type and write and, although, as happens with traumatic brain injuries, he did not walk away unscathed, I have my friend and the world has had the chance to read his words. Patrick’s work has been published in The Washington Post and USA Today, among others, and last year he won the 2018 Waterston Desert Writing Prize for his piece “Adjustment Disorder.”
Being the good friend that he is, Patrick took time to talk to me about writing and veterans and the inextricable link between the two.
1) You recently returned from a trip to Morocco. Can you talk about how that trip connects to both your writing and your military service?
Hi Sarah! Certainly. So, after winning the Waterston Prize in 2018 (which you suggested I submit to!), part of the prize was $2500 to use on a residency or trip that would inspire my writing in some type of desert climate. And with that funding, I was able to fly to Casablanca and drive to an artists’ residency at Café Tissardmine near Erg Chebbi and write there for a week. Having camped out in the Kuwaiti desert on my deployment to Iraq in 2003, I found that there was such an astounding beauty to the desert landscape. And such a tranquility to it, particularly at night underneath the stars—more stars than you could ever imagine. And I think because it became something aside from the possibilities of death and injury in war, an escape of sorts.
2) There are a multitude of resources for writers out there. Some, such as the MFA program we both completed, are geared towards a variety of writers. While others, such as Military Experience and the Arts, which has published two of your pieces–The Desert and We Who Walk Among You–and for which I volunteer as an Associate Editor, are geared specifically towards writers who’ve served. Which writing resources have you taken advantage of that you would recommend to other veterans who are interested in writing?
Yes, there are a good number of resources out there for veteran writers like ourselves like Military Experience and the Arts and War, Literature and the Arts both of which I’ve taken advantage of and have really great editors who have helped me with a couple of different pieces. Others like The Wrath-Bearing Tree, an online literary journal “established and maintained by combat veterans,” have also published a couple of my pieces. One of the things that I think is most important about these venues is that the editors are veterans themselves and there is a sense of mutual understanding regarding the experiences that have shaped the writing—a trust in a way. And because they do often understand so specifically, having experienced it themselves, they are able to see things from a like viewpoint and sometimes in a clearer way than I’ve been able to see or express it.
I’ve also participated in veterans writing workshops like the one organized by Marlboro College in Vermont which gives veteran writers the opportunity to workshop their writing with published authors for a week. More than one piece I’ve published has been a result of that workshop. So, I definitely think it’s super helpful to seek out connections and opportunities to write with other veteran writers as well.
3) As you point out in your Globe & Mail essay “Road Warrior,” you are one of a long line of combat veterans who have turned to writing (and motorcycle riding) as a way to reflect on their service. What other military veteran writers, past and present, resonate with you?
So, as you know, to write one must read. And so for me, I think I’ve tried to read a wide variety of other veteran writers from different eras, wars, and genres to try and get a sense of which I identified with the most. I initially read some of the classic veteran writers like Tim O’Brien and J.D. Salinger and later on Karl Marlantes and Phil Klay, both of whom are powerful and thoughtful fiction and nonfiction writers.
But probably the veteran writer who has most resonated with me over the years has been Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I who wrote All Quiet on the Western Front and his lesser known but equally excellent The Road Back, a novel about those German veterans returning from those WWI French battlefields to a now defeated and indebted Germany. It details their struggles to adjust to peacetime society, find employment, and the difficulties of their postwar physical and mental injuries, and I think is probably one of the best books ever written about such trials.
Probably the other two veteran writers who have resonated with me the most have been T.E. Lawrence (Yes, that Lawrence) and Wilfred Thesiger who I wrote my MFA graduate thesis on. Both of these men, who were WWI and WWII veterans, respectively, were also Oxford educated fighters, writers, and explorers who had a thirst for knowledge beyond the world they originated in and who did not stop in their pursuit of it. They both embedded themselves within Arab tribes throughout the Middle East and North Africa and wrote about their experiences and attraction to these remote desert environments. Whereas Thesiger in his book Arabian Sands, “For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match,” Lawrence reflects this sentiment in his autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom when he refers to his time spent in the desert as cleansing, “The abstraction of the desert landscape cleansed me, and rendered my mind vacant with its superfluous greatness.” So, I think, having myself felt what they did in the desert landscapes, find them both to be a kind of an assuring presence in my own writing.
4) Writing is often considered a solitary endeavor. However, you and I have often provided feedback on each other’s writing, shared contest and other writing-related opportunities, and celebrated writing successes. How important is having a writing community and how would you recommend a veteran go about finding one?
It’s so important, definitely for various submission opportunities, constructive criticism, and making contacts with other writers, editors, and agents. And I think there are a few ways to do this, to find a writing community, with one being MFA programs in creative writing like the one we met at or veterans writing intensives or workshops like I participated in at Marlboro College. There are also many good veterans writing workshops and nonprofits throughout the country like the Veterans Writing Project and Words After War that help veterans put their stories on paper outside of the academic route.
Indeed, with the idea being that after each war, the next crop of great veteran authors is on the verge of being born, there are many resources available for this generation of veteran writers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. For me, who started my MFA in Creative Writing knowing I wanted to write but that I needed some guidance and structure, the MFA program was the initial resource that I sought out. For others, who might not have the time to commit to a university writing program, I would say to just get involved with one of these veterans writing nonprofits or groups that will give you an opportunity to have your writing workshopped by other writers. And to do this, it may take that twenty seconds of courage to bare your soul and have it picked apart for a brief moment, but I promise it will be worth it.
5) I love following your social media feeds, because you are always off on some amazing adventure–whether that’s convincing a Moroccan bartender to become an Amy Winehouse fan or doing a security consultants course in the UK. All of which, I am sure, will eventually work their way onto the page. What’s next for you, in print or in real life, that we should be on the lookout for?
Ha-ha, that’s awesome. I do my best to bring our patroness saint Amy to the masses. So, I think for now, I’m very slowly working on a novel spanning Iraq and Morocco and parts of Europe which I hope to have made some progress on on this last foray into the desert. I’m also trying to be more disciplined and get on a more structured writing schedule, but struggling with this, being even a bit more scatterbrained and distractible post-brain injury than I was before. So, I have some nonfiction essays that are stacked up waiting for me to finish as well.
I do like to keep the vocational certifications current in case I ever feel like doing some security consulting again so that’s always a possibility. For the moment, I’m gearing up to start the PhD in War Studies Programme at the Royal Military College of Canada this fall so that will keep me busy. I’ve also just acquired this 1960 Triumph TR3 two-door coupe that I plan on participating in the 2022 Peking to Paris Motoring Challenge with, so I’ve got a couple years to tinker around and get it ready. And I’m counting on cajoling a veteran writer friend (hint) to come along for the ride and document this next great adventure as well. [What do you think, readers? Should I go?]
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