When the coronavirus pandemic took hold, the lockdowns, isolation and uncertainty triggered many veterans living with PTSD from combat. The pandemic also exacerbated issues like unemployment, housing insecurity, food insecurity and financial difficulty on top of the emotional trauma—all of which veteran Omar Columbus has experienced.
Originally from North Carolina, Omar served 12 years on active duty from 1994-2006, with assignments in South Carolina, Spain, South Korea, Japan, Greece, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Texas, Colorado Springs, and Virginia. After separating from active duty in 2006, he decided to move to New York City to build a new life that led him into poetry, the arts and advocacy. Nearly 15 years later, he looks back on all he accomplished in NYC and ahead to his new chapter in Palm Springs, California. Read more in this exclusive and poignant interview.
What was your experience in NYC during the pandemic?
It was a war that I wasn’t prepared for. In the military, they give us the gear and training, but the pandemic was completely new and unpredictable. It was the same life-or-death feeling, but with no resources, no support, and no way out. Depression and anxiety really set in. Suicide rates are going up in general and especially among veterans, with roughly 22 suicides a day by veterans. Many veteran organizations really became a crucial safety net for me and so many others. My interest in the arts, whether poetry, playwriting, photography or painting, became even more of an outlet to cope and stay inspired.
What made you move to Palm Springs?
I just needed a place where I could be grounded and continue my creative pursuits. I was trying to hold on in New York, but the rent didn’t stop. You have to work to survive in that city more than anywhere else, and now all of the sudden, you’re not working and barely surviving. To make it worse, you’re isolated sitting in a box. The pressure kept building and I didn’t have the financial backing to stay put. I lived there for 14 years; I never thought I’d make it there for 14 minutes. I’m grateful for that chapter, which put me in a position to build the credibility and network to be an asset to and even a bridge between the veteran and civilian communities.
Where does your creative side come from?
It’s everything I’ve lived and seen, including some of the quintessential New York dream. I just had to live in NYC. I returned to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in art from Brooklyn College. From there, just running around the city fueled my passion further. I was a briefer in the Air Force and public speaking really stuck with me. I missed that rush of presenting to people, so I took some classes in acting, theatre, and eventually got into poetry. I always wanted to share my story and journey.
With poetry, I learned to really take in words and emotions I was running from—even as simple as the word “bomb”—in a creative and productive way. I joined a group called Poetic Theater Productions that runs 6-week workshops empowering veterans to amplify their voices, from free writing to editing to embodiment, instead of internalizing it all. Poetic Theater Productions also helps get those stories to the civilian audience so people can understand the burden of war. It’s not just a veteran experience; it’s American history.
Being able to stand up, speak in the first person, and own all that trauma was life changing.
What is a recent accomplishment that you’re proud of?
I wrote my first short play, which was presented as part of the Veteran Voices: Rites of Passage Theater Festival in Brooklyn. It was an idea and concept for a short story that I had written while attending Brooklyn College. All these years later, it became a live play. I worked with actors in New York, a director and choreographer in London and myself in California, all remotely over video chat. It was extremely rewarding to see it come to life in a format that was new for me to write.
What are you working on right now?
I’m still involved with Poetic Theater Productions, now finding veterans to be part of the program and helping lead them through the 6-week workshops. I’m also working with the founder at an organization called Women Veterans Empowered & Thriving, which creates a safe space for the very heavy and traumatic stories of war to be told in a self-compassionate and non-judgmental way. There’s also VETART, based in San Diego, where I’m helping to bring writing into the fold alongside visual art forms for veterans to tap into creative expression. Many others, too.
What motivates you? How do you make time to work with so many organizations?
Not feeling good enough. I never want anyone to feel the way I’ve felt about myself. Veterans sacrifice so much, often only to come back into a world where they don’t feel safe or stable. Every day, I just want to deal with those emotions in a positive way and help others do the same.
To keep up with Omar’s uplifting creative projects and immersive veteran advocacy, follow him on Instagram.