By: Monica Solis
“I believe in love. Love is art,” says Claudia Rodriguez. “Art is love. It’s pretty much how I’ve stayed alive my whole life.”
That’s Claudia Andrea Rodriguez, a 26-year-old San Antonio resident and Iraq veteran, describing how she survived the experience of a war overseas and the battles she faces today.
“I was a 92 Yankee, pues I’m always going to be a 92 Yankee, pero,” Rodriguez says. “I was fourth I.D. I deployed with Delta troop, 8-10 cav. ‘Rough Riders,’ hooah hooah! I’m an Army veteran”
But Rodriguez also describes herself as an artist. I used to work with Rodriguez and we became friends, quickly connecting over a love for art, music, and a sense of independence.. I didn’t truly
understand her story or her art until very recently. I’ve seen her paintings– nude women looking out over horizons of pastels or seasons defined by blended colors that look like they’re on fire, fueled by dissonant textures.
“I always figured I could just paint myself another life,” Rodriguez says.
But Rodriguez is not just an artist of pastels and oils on canvas. Claudia Andrea Rodriguez had her radio debut last week in our In the Public Interest program focusing on Freedom Defenders. She was a part of a story I introduced called “Women Warriors.” She is an artist of survival – and this is her story.
“I will go down for what I truly believe so I do agree with the military way of fight,” Rodriguez says. “You know what I mean? Fight.”
Rodriguez says she has been fighting her whole life – fighting to feel like she belonged since the age of 4 when she was brought by adoption to the US, fighting, when she enlisted at age 17, within herself – how to be an Army soldier and maintain her artistic self. Finally, Rodriguez has fought for her sense of identity.
Rodriguez identifies herself as a lesbian and believes in fighting for equal rights for the LGBT community in this country. However, during her time in the Army, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule had not yet been appealed; she had to cover up her sexual identity if she hoped to stay in and fight for the country itself.
As a female soldier, Rodriguez also had to prove her belonging in the military by being just as tough if not tougher than her male counterparts.
“If they’re tough, you have to be tougher,” Rodriguez says. “Men are stronger, but women are faster. A man looks at a wall and says ‘I’m gunna take that wall DOWN!’ But a woman looks at it and says ‘ok, in what ways can I take this wall down?’ Our breaking point is incredible. As humans, we are incredible.”
Rodriguez spent her first three years stationed in Fort Hood in Killeen. Her fourth year in Iraq, is when she says breaking points were tested and realized the most.
“It’s the fact that you’re going to have to sit there and get bombed for hours and you can’t do anything but sit there and hope it doesn’t land on your freaking head,” Rodriguez says. “You get angry, and sometimes you think ‘crap, let it just fall.’ I felt like that. I was sitting on a bench and we were getting bombed, like all over the place. And I sat on that bench, and I smoked my cigarette. And I put it out, and I slowly walked inside. ‘You’re not going to move me!’ And that’s so stupid, like I was so stupid you know, like ‘holy crap you ignorant little girl, get inside.’ But I was so mad; I was like ‘I’m going to put this cigarette out when I choose to!’”
Experiences like this, Rodriguez says, are what led to her struggle in adjusting to civilian life during leave.
“All my buddies were out there suffering and stuff and here I was,” Rodriguez says. “My buddy that died – he died on his sixth deployment. That’s six years he spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, six years. Can you imagine six years of getting blown up day after day after day after day after day?”
This reality was even harder to deal with for Rodriguez upon return to civilian life.
“It’s really stressful to have bombs falling around you and then when you’re not around it anymore, you’re constantly feeling like ..‘is that a bomb?’ and then you’re like, ‘holy crap! I’m in Valero. It’s not a bomb.’ But I’m always ready, always ready,” Rodriguez says. “That’s pretty much what a soldier has to do, always be ready. When you get out that doesn’t stop. Your instincts don’t shut down. Your training doesn’t go away. Once a soldier, always a soldier, always, always and forever.”
Rodriguez says the VA helps her with medical needs though sometimes she says, she feels too restricted and would rather not be there at all. Rodriguez was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that affects 50 percent of her brain. PTSD arises from experiences of trauma according to the website of the National Institute of Mental Health. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs approximates that PTSD has affected 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, 11 percent of Afghanistan veterans and 20 percent of veterans of the war in Iraq. But these PTSD numbers aren’t just approximations to Rodriguez. She is surrounded by its reality.
SB Rodriguez: “You have the ones that go out in their underwear with their gun, laying in the grass, telling you to ‘Get down!’ (laughs) and then you have the ones that can’t see fireworks, then the ones that get sloshed and start talking endlessly about the war,” Rodriguez says. “I mean everybody’s different – the way you deal with stress and pain – the way you deal with not being
able to deal with stuff. Everybody’s different, very different.”
While veterans deal with the effects of war differently, Rodriguez says, they pretty much feel the same when it comes to Veterans Day or other holidays commemorating veterans. They don’t know how to respond.
“Sometimes I feel like a shmuck, when I go for the free food and stuff,” Rodriguez says. “It’s hard to be a veteran sometimes, especially as a young veteran, when a lot of your battle buddies stayed in or died. It’s just sad sometimes.”
But Rodriguez offers another insight.
“I feel appreciative that you noticed me, but that’s more of just like as a person, Rodriguez says. “If you appreciate me for my art, I feel equally like ‘you saw me.’”
Rodriguez currently resides with her ‘babies’ – her dogs – Lulu, Bebe, and Weezy, in San Antonio, and continues to pursue her passion for creating art.
This has been THREADS – the stories that bind us, and for KTSW’s Other Side Drive, I’m Monica Solis.