A vet helping to take care of vets[ By Dawne Belloise ]
Where I’m from is a loaded question, given my cultural views as to where we’re all from. We’re all stardust,” Steve Otero quotes Carl Sagan and then confesses, “It’s the same sob story you’ve heard a hundred times, I was born and raised in Houston,” says the Texas transplant. He had the quintessential 1980s blue collar suburban upbringing as the eldest of six siblings of a blended family, his dad was a cop and his mother was a special education teacher. Steve spent a lot of summers riding his bike to the pool in that Texas heat, “I thought that was everything. When we are younger, we have this innate desire to be present and experience everything.”
In high school, Steve’s focus was on speech and debate, attending competitions. He graduated in 2000 and immediately signed up to become an Airman in the U.S. Airforce. “I was trying to impress a girl,” he laughs. “Our sanity at 18 is often enhanced by a few extra decades.” With a keen interest in photography, Steve was assigned his first choice of jobs as a military photographer.
Camera in hand and only 48 hours into his new job, he was given his first assignment. “I was sent to photograph a fellow airman’s suicide.”
Stationed at Offutt Air Force base in Nebraska, the then 19-year-old remembers standing in the hallway with an M16 as President Bush walked past him on September 11, 2001. The president had been flown to the bunker for safety when the planes hit the Twin Towers in Manhattan. Steve’s assignment became security instead of cameraman.
He became a forensic photographer for military investigations. “We were trained to go to international court. In a warzone, any time violence occurred, I would travel with a team of individuals who were trained in explosive ordinance disposals. We hunted people who placed improvised explosive devices,” he explains of his Iraq tour in 2007 to 2008. The team was also there for evidential documentation to prove, Steve explains, “That we were not committing atrocities as well.” Classified as a combat cameraman, Steve also required combat, weapons and general infantry training. He traveled with a tiny satellite communicator that enabled him to send war zone environment imagery quickly. “I liked my job but there were definitely some tough days,” he confirms.
Steve spent almost two years recovering from injuries sustained in Afghanistan. “I had an abdominal wall that looked like Swiss cheese.” Consequently, he had 13 abdominal surgeries to fix hernias, concussive injuries from repeated traumas from bombs and explosives. Steve ended his military service in 2012, and he addresses the issues he had to face. “Uncle Sam was telling me that multiple handfuls of pills were going to solve my problems — physical, mental, emotional and spiritual — all the domains of life.”
Steve met his future wife Sarah in Nebraska in 2002. “She thought I stole her cheap camera,” the photographer laughs, “and she disliked me for six months.” When Steve finally found Sarah’s camera under the passenger car seat he says she realized, “I was likely just a knucklehead who didn’t clean his car.” He impressed her with backstage passes at concerts, where he’d photograph musicians and write reviews. “That was my fun stuff and I’d get into concerts free.” They married in the summer of 2007, just five days before he was a on a plane to Iraq. For the next three years, Steve was in and out of combat.
Returning from Iraq in 2007, Steve had been diagnosed with PTSD. “At the time, we didn’t understand how to effectively transition people who had been utilizing violence as a tool for success. We didn’t know how to transition from a place where violence is accepted as a tool, to a society where violence is unacceptable.” Needing help emotionally, physically and spiritually, he left the military and Germany with an honorable discharge and a pregnant wife who was carrying twins, Sophia and Dustin, and flew home to Houston.
“I had been in and out of hospitals between Germany and Washington D.C. for one and a half years with combat related injuries from hernia and brain trauma from repeated exposures to blasts, and back issues,” Steve relates. Returning to Houston, he began his job search. “When I was in the hospital in Germany, I picked up a Forbes magazine which projected that the highest paid salaries were going to occur in Houston.” Steve got a job in finance, communications and marketing for VA mortgage loans. “I learned all about the mortgage business but the most important thing I learned that year was that no one anywhere could pay me any amount of money to do a job I dislike,” he grins, and he got another job, “Which taught me even more about where I wanted to be in the world.”
During his time in VA financing, Steve was an advocacy volunteer for veterans’ benefits. “I realized the way I could maintain connection in the veterans’ community was to be involved in advocacy work. We were a beat up group of vets who were trying to not put guns in our mouths,” he says. “I was really good at going away but not good at coming home. We don’t know how to come home.”
He was recruited by the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program, (not affiliated with the non-profit organization) and the family moved to San Antonio in 2013. “They knew I could get the attention of elected officials and the public quickly,” he says of the outreach program he was hired to build. “I was able to pitch ideas to the decision makers on how to reach and take care of people. Part of the big challenge was reaching those who had been discharged in the mid 2000s. The position had Steve traveling most of the year, returning home between projects. He was missing his family life and his kids growing up. “I got tired of talking to my 2-year-olds through plastic and glass,” he says, referring to cell phone conversations with his kids.
In 2013, Prince Harry arrived in Colorado Springs to attend the Warrior Games, an adaptive sporting competition for wounded military veterans, and afterwards, the prince reached out to the U.S. government wanting to host an international version of the games. The following year, Steve was headed to England. “I got to live in London for a month as part of the advance team to coordinate the event prior to the arrival of the participants of Team USA. It was amazing,” he says of the week-long games. It was a high level, high stress job where Steve would spend time with then vice president Joe Biden, his wife Dr. Jill Biden and first lady Michele Obama.
Back home at his job, it was busyness as usual. “I was able to have all these opportunities but I was questioning my own existence. I needed to change what I was doing, despite how cool and interesting the job was. I was still seeing my kids through a cell phone.” It was just after the Warrior Games that one of the coaches told Steve about Crested Butte’s Adaptive Sports Center’s programs and he and the coach brought a small group of vets to ski and snowboard in January 2015. He had already fallen in love with the mountains as a little kid camping with his dad. Steve resigned from his job.
In the fall of 2015, Steve moved his family to Mt. CB. From August through December of 2016, he attended the National Outdoor Leadership School, spending 100 days in the woods and mountains of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Idaho. “It was glorious and I needed that. I was very institutionalized, so deeply ingrained in the military culture that I couldn’t see anything else. I didn’t understand the world through any other lens.” Afterwards, he started the job he had been hired for earlier that year, as the Gunnison County veteran service officer. He also enrolled at Western Colorado University (WCU). This year, 2021, Steve will earn three degrees, two Bachelor of Arts, one in Psychology, another in Outdoor Education leadership, and a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science.
He makes time now to enjoy mountain living. “We are outside every weekend. The kids get to take ski and snowboard lessons,” he’s proud that he has one of each, a rider and a skier. “My wife is a skier and I splitboard. You’ll find me up one of the drainages.” He has led veteran’s groups and is a board member of the non-profit Huts for Vets. “We lead therapeutic programming many weekends over the summer to huts within the 10th Mountain Division. It’s a combo of physical and intellectual stimulation. The team believes that all vets are secretly philosophers because military veterans are presented with some of life’s most challenging questions when we are very young, so we work to encourage the philosophers mindset. The goal is to encourage philosophical and introspective discussion while immersed in nature.”
Steve feels that his goal in life is, “To attempt to prove the validity and efficacy of nature-based therapeutic intervention for both active and discharged military. That sums up what I want to do with the rest of my life. I don’t want other people to suffer as I have.” He plans on entering a masters program in neuroscience at Kings College in London. “My research will take place in Gunnison County. I can stay right here through WCU. It brings me full circle and incorporates Prince Harry’s Invictus Games, intervention that combines physical and mental stimuli, however, my interest is in wrapping that in a natural environment. It’s also my goal to eventually run a winter program to cater to a different group of veterans.”
Steve feels that there’s no better laboratory environment for him than at 9,898 feet, “Gunnison County allows me the opportunity to take care of people and I’m very grateful.”
Any veterans or members of the community who are interested in supporting veterans can contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.