New veteran services officer on duty
Times Staff Writer
Steve Otero is new to the Gunnison Valley — and only assumed the role of Gunnison County Veteran Services officer less than a month ago. But listening to him talk, it’s easy to believe he’s been here all along and that local veterans are his family.
A native of Houston, Otero came by his love of the mountains while serving in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant. There — and in the suburbs of Baghdad in Iraq — is also where he forged a deep passion for helping veterans of the armed services once they return home.
“Had you and I met two years ago, I was still a lot more closed off and a more negative person,” Otero admits. “But as time has gone on, and I believe time does heal, I now believe anybody can overcome post-traumatic stress, if we choose to.”
It was a quest for healing — for himself and others — that brought Otero to the Gunnison Valley in the first place. He led a group of wounded soldiers here to participate in an Adaptive Sports program in Crested Butte. He believes time spent outdoors can be a key component of recovery for veterans suffering physical and psychological wounds.
To prove that idea, Otero is presently an undergraduate student at Western State Colorado University — with his sights set on eventually earning a Master of Science in High Altitude Exercise Physiology.
“I want to be able to advise the government and nonprofits on the value of outdoor programs from a clinical point of view, not just as another person who loves to bike,” he said.
Otero isn’t a trained U.S. Army Ranger or Special Forces commando — but between 2007 and 2010 he accompanied them on hundreds of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. His job involved a different kind of shooting — as a U.S. Air Force forensic photographer.
“I was there to document what American forces were actually doing versus what the opposition propaganda unit might be claiming we were doing,” Otero said. “They would often claim we were going in and slaughtering people and committing atrocities.”
As a member of a counter-IED team in Baghdad from 2007-2009, he witnessed the brutal realities of war first hand. In 2009, he was present at Khost Airfield in Afghanistan when a suicide bomber infiltrated Camp Chapman and killed seven Central Intelligence Agency officers — the largest single loss of life event in the agency’s history. Otero was the photographer assigned to document the scene.
In other words, he’s seen the “worst that people are capable of doing to each other.”
By November 2010, Otero had to admit something he’d been denying — that repeated exposure to trauma had taken a toll on his body. Doctors discovered he suffered from nerve damage throughout his abdomen, as well as mild traumatic brain injury.
“Somebody takes pot shots at you and you hit the ground and return fire, or somebody fires an RPG and it lands 10 or 20 feet from you and it rings your bell,” he said. “It’s routine work, even for soldiers who don’t leave the base. Indirect fire from mortars or RPGs is unfortunately a daily reality.”
In 2012, Otero was medically discharged from active duty and embarked on a career of service of a different kind — making sure veterans have access to all the benefits to which they are entitled. With that in mind, he has big plans in his official role in Gunnison County.
“First, I want to meet every vet in the valley, if I can find a way to get to all of them,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if that vet is 100 years old or 20. Also, I want to start attending every single funeral of a veteran.”
For more information about veteran services in Gunnison County e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 970.641.3244.
(Alan Wartes can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or email@example.com.)