What: Waterston Desert Writing Prize reception. Features hosted wine bar, hors d’oeuvres, readings and “A Desert Conversation” panel discussion

When: 6 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: High Desert Museum, 59800 S. U.S. Highway 97, Bend

Cost: Free, reservations required

Contact: 541-382-4754 or highdesertmuseum.org/events

Patrick Mondaca, a researcher, writer and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, has won the 2018 Waterston Desert Writing Prize with his submission titled “Adjustment Disorder.”

The Waterston Prize is in its fourth year and was inspired by Central Oregon writer and poet Ellen Waterston’s love of the High Desert. It recognizes excellence in nonfiction writing featuring desert as the subject and setting. Mondaca will be presented with a $2,000 cash award, during a reading and reception at the High Desert Museum in Bend on Wednesday. He will also receive a four-week residency at the PLAYA at Summer Lake retreat for artists and scientists.

Mondaca’s winning project proposal is for a memoir about the discovery of personal peace in a Sudanese desert landscape by a combat veteran. It was selected from almost 70 entries submitted by writers across the U.S. and also Armenia, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, India, Serbia and the United Arab Emirates. Two finalists were also named for the 2018 award: Kathryn Wilder from Dolores, Colorado, for “These Seasons of Disappointment: Cows in the Desert,” and Diana Woodcock from Midlothian, Virginia, for “The Gobi Desert and Its Muslim Inhabitants.”

“With Mondaca’s winning proposal, this year’s prize not only recognizes writing that expands awareness of deserts and desert literature, but also brings the reader along on the author’s figurative exploration of the desert within to achieve personal peace as a result of his military experience,” said prize founder and president Waterston. “He does so by returning to a literal desert that figured in that experience.”

A former police officer, Mondaca was a changed man when he returned to the U.S. in 2004 after a yearlong deployment to Baghdad, Iraq, with his Connecticut Army National Guard unit. He couldn’t shake the continuous state of hyper alertness he had maintained while on deployment. He also found his sense of self, relationships and surroundings altered by his wartime experiences.

In a 2017 opinion piece published in The Washington Post, Mondaca wrote, “Instead of traffic, I see blocked convoys and kill zones. Instead of crowded subways and train platforms, I see hundreds of potential casualties hemmed in by machine-gun fire from superior advantages of height and terrain. On rooftops and window ledges and on the steeples of cathedrals, I see places of concealment for snipers.”

He tried to go back to his job as a police officer but had a post-combat restlessness that just wouldn’t go away. He was diagnosed with adjustment disorder, which causes a detachment from the rest of society and difficulty disconnecting from wartime experiences. It is supposedly temporary and will improve or disappear with time. However, four years later in 2007, Mondaca was still struggling to settle into life back at home.

“I just wanted to get out and needed to leave,” Mondaca said. “Darfur was just heating up, and I applied to go to Sudan as a field safety officer for a humanitarian group.”

Taking on a potentially dangerous job and heading back into a war zone may seem counterintuitive. But the starkly different experience Mondaca had being in the desert and trying to help save lives — versus being there as a soldier in a more urban setting — turned out to be a balm for his mind and soul.

“There was something about living out in the field with these desert tribes, watching the sun go down, listening to the call for prayer and lying under the stars that was really peaceful,” Mondaca said. “There is a serenity that one derives from the desert’s vast nothingness.”

After returning from Sudan in 2008, Mondaca started working “here and there” on his memoir and some other short stories and contributed articles while completing his master’s degree in Global Affairs. Then in 2014 he decided to undertake a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. At the same time, he began to delve into the writings of T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) and Wilfred Thesiger who had both written about the pull of the desert and the feelings of purification they felt after living and traveling in the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East.

“I studied the commonalities of what they and I had experienced,” Mondaca said. “There seems to be a sort of common peace in solitude, or certainly a pull that the desert has.”

While Mondaca’s adjustment disorder still manifests itself occasionally, over time he has found better ways to cope with the situations that troubled him when he first returned from Baghdad. And he still feels the lure of the deserts he loves.

“I was just on vacation in southern Italy exploring some of the ruins at Pompeii, and I felt that desert wind blowing across the sea from North Africa and it felt beckoning,” he said.

Mondaca hopes to use his prize money to travel to a small Berber village in the Moroccan Sahara in December and try to complete several more chapters of his memoir. He is excited to experience the High Desert of Central Oregon when he visits the area for the first time to attend the Waterston Prize award ceremony.

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