Community members will have a chance to hear the work of a new veteran-author and Saint Leo University writing teacher when Brooke King reads from War Flower: My Life After Iraq at University Campus this month. King's reading is scheduled for Thursday, July 18, at 5:30 p.m., in TECO Hall, located in the Tapia College of Business building. Admission is free and open to the public. Visitors will find ample parking available in lots near the main entrance to campus, which is at 33701 State Road 52, St. Leo, 33574.
This will be King's first major local reading since War Flower was released earlier this year by Potomac Books, part of the University of Nebraska Press.
Influential media including Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews have praised King for providing an open and honest account of her deployment to Iraq, which began in 2006. She was 19 years old then and a new enlisted soldier. Kirkus Reviews described the book as "An absolutely compelling war memoir marked by the author's incredible strength of character and vulnerability."
Dr. Steve Kistulentz, an author who directs the Saint Leo Master of Arts program in creative writing, praised King as a writer and as a fellow faculty member. "Brooke's book is a good illustration not only of her talent but of her perseverance." Noting that King now teaches in the MA program, Kistulentz observed, "In many ways, the book reflects who she is as a teacher, too, as it is tough, tender, and above all honest."
Veteran and post-traumatic stress disorder
King is candid throughout War Flower about decisions she made that were good, bad, or misguided, and the results that followed. Through dialogue, she reveals to readers her reason for enlisting in the Army in the first place. She wanted to get away from a hometown party scene that was ultimately dragging her down, the U.S. Army was one way out. She was also drawn to the opportunity to learn how to be a mechanic. That reasoning is not unusual among potential recruits, and King's enlistment would not have been so dramatic had it been peacetime.
But winding up in combat as a female Army private was unusual, or at least seemed to be in 2006. Work roles made a big difference in determining which soldiers had recurring exposure to the modern urban combat that took place in Iraq. As a mechanic, King would be dispatched with others from base to retrieve trucks that were broken down and damaged during missions. She and fellow soldiers had to engage in firefights in these situations, and others. She was also assigned, for a time, to help retrieve remains of slain soldiers who bore horrifying wounds from modern weaponry.
The fortified American Army base itself was safer, but not invulnerable. Combatants launched mortar rounds into the outpost, and that, too, figures into King's story.
King developed anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (among other injuries) under these conditions, though she would not admit it for some time after she was discharged. Her grandfather, a Vietnam era veteran, was one of the first people to recognize, in general terms, what was ailing her. But despite continuing nightmares, dark moods, and other physical after-effects, King did not want to confront her ailment. She and her family felt the ill effects, though, even as she was growing as a person, a mother, a writer, and an adult undergraduate English major at Saint Leo.
War Flower takes the reader along on this part of the journey as well, where we begin to see the repercussions of war not just in the author, but on those close to her as well.
With the writing and release of the book (in hardcover, audio, and e-formats), King has had opportunities in recent months to speak with both female and male veterans, and civilians, about the wartime experience.
Thus far, King has found, women are most likely to be the people to approach her. In her estimation, this is "mostly because they have someone who has finally spoke up about female combat veterans, and as one of the first to write memoir in the war genre about it, it comes as no surprise that men are just as intrigued as women are about the subject. I think it stems from the lack of media coverage about female soldiers in combat, and so when there is a memoir that deals directly about that written by a female veteran, it creates a sense of wonder. Though my story is just about the same as a male soldier, the female aspect of war and aftermath twists the perspective forcing the reader to see war through a new lens, and to some, that rarity in memoir (especially in war literature) turns that wonder into a curiosity."
Launching and managing a writing-teaching career
King completed War Flower after earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Sierra Nevada College. She studied in a low-residency program—where students work remotely with teachers for most of the two-year process, but gather together at set intervals for weeklong residencies. That format allowed her to work on her degree from home in Florida, even though the college is in Nevada.
After earning her MFA, King was ready to join her alma mater Saint Leo as teacher in the university's own low-residency program for developing writers who want to pursue fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction, with an option also for veterans who want to study war literature in any of the three writing forms. (King's July 18 reading is part of the 2019 residency, and readings from other authors will be announced and open to the public as well.)
"Teaching runs in the family," King said. "A lot of my family members teach. I guess I was naturally gifted in that area. I love imparting the knowledge I've learned to other people. I secretly love seeing the look on a student's face when the light bulb goes on and they get what I am teaching. It gives me joy to help someone else. It may be the natural caregiver in me."
In addition to promoting War Flower, the author is writing a new book that picks up where the memoir left off. "It details more of my childhood and looks at the reality of life juxtaposed to death that has rattled my life for the past five years. Without giving too much away, it deals with Iraq, and parts of my deployment that I choose to leave out of War Flower on purpose."
Other creative and intellectual pursuits are tugging at her, as well. A longtime crime fiction enthusiast, King has enrolled in the Master of Science program in criminal justice at Saint Leo to learn more about criminal psychology and investigations.
All that is just part of her current life.
Now 33, married, and with three children, King works another job (as do many writers) on weekends to contribute to the household income. Her carefully constructed schedule allows her to be available for her children's weekday needs and activities, and still spend some time on her next book and her studies, adding in her straightforward manner, "controlled chaos is a good description of my life right now."