By Carla Carlton
A classy woman with tattoos
I am a hybrid
You do not know
The cover ups
to my skin
that never started
Among the colorful tattoos that adorn Lindsay Gargotto’s forearms is a drawing of Athena, the Greek goddess of war and wisdom. “I love that she is about resolving conflict, but always ready to stand up for what is needed,” she says.
But mainly she uses her knowledge of war and her way with words to advocate for the growing number of Bellarmine students with ties to the armed forces. Under her watch, Bellarmine landed a highly competitive $390,000 grant from the U.S. Department of
Education to create a Center of Excellence for Veteran Student Success
last year received the prestigious “Military Friendly” designation, the highest such distinction a university can earn.
"Lindsay gets us because she is one of us.” - Ben Porter '23, retired Navy
Gargotto is also an adjunct professor whose literature courses at Bellarmine spotlight the sharing of life stories, particularly those focused on the complexity of trauma.
“In my writing courses, we talk a lot about voice and visibility,” she says. “While we have our particular stories, all these have some kind of connection—the feelings of being disenfranchised or being voiceless or undervalued.
Those are things that we can collectively embrace and grow from.”
Gargotto has helped others learn to tell their stories throughout her career. But before she could do that, she had to find her own voice.
‘Woman of the Wild’
Gargotto, a Kentucky native, joined the Air Force in 2000, just before she turned 20. “I had been taking some community college courses, and I really liked college, but I couldn't afford it,” she says. “I had a friend who had gone into
the Air Force, and I thought, ‘Well, if she can go into the military, I can go.’
“It was the idea of getting to travel, having health care, having a job. I was an X-ray tech, so I got a really good job, a skill. And then it was a place to live, and education benefits, and meeting new people. I thought, ‘If I don't do something
now, I could be stuck here just doing the same thing for the rest of my life.’ And I didn't want that.”
She trained at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and was then stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska, for three years. Alaska was “mystical,” she says, but it was also isolating. “I had my first daughter
there, and I was alone,” she says. “I had a lot of support from my military sisters, but it wasn't the same as having your mom and your aunts around you.”
That daughter, Kyleigh, is now a sophomore Environmental Science major at Bellarmine; younger daughter Kady is a student at Ballard High School.
At nine months pregnant with her first child, Gargotto encountered a moose and her calf on the Alaskan base—an experience she captured later in a poem called “Woman of the Wild”:
I was walking into the hospital
around a dark corner. It was December.
It was always dark. I had no idea
they were there, a mother and calf—
bigger than horses,
things of mountain myths.
I was a solid mark for her.
I remember the briefing they gave us,
“mothers will kill without hesitation.”
It was a narrow space between me and the baby.
The mother a few feet away.
She looked up, all eyes and head—
and charged me. No hesitation. All fight.
and went to my knees, cradling my baby.
We both had the same fear.
She stopped, only a foot or two away.
I could feel her grassy breath on top
of my head. I stayed with head down,
knees to the concrete, and she and her
baby walked away—together.
I kneeled on the concrete in the blackness
on my skinned knees murmuring
to my baby that I had saved our lives,
that I loved her. I would always protect her.
Even in Alaska, even from the wild.
But I am still not sure
which one of us
was the wild beast.
After leaving active duty in 2004 and moving back to Kentucky, Gargotto used her military benefits to earn a bachelor’s degree in women’s and gender studies from the University of Louisville. She then earned a Master of Social Work and a Master
of Fine Arts in Writing from Spalding University. She counseled military families at U of L’s Center for Promoting Resiliency & Recovery and mentored young women at the Home of the Innocents and Our Lady of Peace.
In the intervening years, she wondered where all the other women veterans were. At Veterans Administration events, “I’d be the only woman in the room,” she says, “and then they always thought I was the spouse, not the veteran.”
So in 2014, she founded Athena’s Sisters, an organization that provides resources and social interaction for active and former military women that has more than 200 members. She also created and edits WarrioHer and tHE ART of Sisterhood, publications
containing the poetry, essays and artwork of military women.
Several art pieces made by veteran women decorate her colorfully chaotic office, which is also stuffed with books. One depicts a military boot filled with flowers, reflecting the signature table decoration for Athena’s Sisters events. A Navy vet
crafted the organization’s logo in stained glass. “I’ve met a lot of amazing, talented women over the years that, you know, nobody was paying any attention to them,” she says.
In recognition of her efforts, Gargotto was named the first-ever woman Veteran of the Year in 2014 during the City of Louisville’s Week of Valor.
It’s important for women veterans to control their narratives, she says. And yet she never intended for her first collection of poetry to be published.
‘Words are her method and means’
While going through a tough personal time, Gargotto wrote one poem a day for 30 days “to see if I was getting better,” she says. The poems were “uncensored, unedited—just bare bones. But I shared them with a friend of mine who
is a writer, an editor and an illustrator. And she said, ‘Can I just play with these?’”
That friend, Bree, founded and operates Green Panda Press, which publishes hand-made books by independent poets and artists. Gargotto’s poems and Bree’s collage-style illustrations became When the Poppy Sheds: Poems of Recovery, published
“Lindsay is a survivor,” Bree said in an email. “Words are her method and means. The proof is in the poetry.…She inspired me to cut and paste like we do memories. My collages support her columns of words that hold her head up
to speak loud and clear: Love thyself.”
Dreams have watermarks,
traceable, detectable –
each inexplicably marked.
has lines and edges.
I have one dream for most nights,
and two dreams for lonely nights.
I wait for the edgeless nights,
where the lines cannot find me.
Gargotto was happy with the book, but she didn’t promote it; the poems came from a place of vulnerability and she feared the judgment of readers. Then another friend submitted the book to the Appalachian Arts & Entertainment Awards—and
Gargotto was named the 2022 Author of the Year.
A volume of poems related to her time in the service, An Unbridled Cadence: A Bluegrass WarrioHer
, followed in 2019, and last year she published When the Ashes Bloom
In 2017, Gargotto met Dr. Rick Brown, a former U.S. Air Force staff sergeant who was directing Bellarmine’s nascent veteran services initiative, and he recruited her to teach part time. When the Office of Military and Veterans Services was created
in 2018, Gargotto became a part-time administrator, then full-time assistant director. When Brown departed for another position, she was named director.
In its short existence, the OMVS has increased military-affiliated student enrollment by 85 percent, and retention has been high. That’s partly due to the Valor Learning Community
which Gargotto created with part of the federal grant. It’s the first military-affiliated learning community for first-year and transfer students in Kentucky.
Learning Community includes the same components as the five other Bellarmine learning communities, such as taking classes together, participating in programming that aligns with classes, getting support and guidance from faculty, and gaining peer
One of those classes is an English course taught by Gargotto in which students examine the writing of veterans from the first World War through contemporary times. “It's not a political class,” she says. “We do not discuss war in any
way, shape or form. It's not about ‘Do we think war is right or wrong.’ We might discuss what we think the author is saying about it, but we’re not discussing it. We’re critiquing for the writing, like any literature class.
“I try to make sure the class understands that yes, we are using the identities of ‘veteran’ and ‘military’ in this course, but you can apply it across any identity.”
“Lindsay is always advocating for veteran rights and pushes all of us to find and use our voices for what we believe in, even if she doesn’t necessarily share our view,” says Ben Porter, who retired from the Navy in 2018 after 21 years
of service and is majoring in Psychology and Sociology/Anthropology with a minor in Art. He chose Bellarmine after his positive experience on campus as a Navy recruiter.
“When I first met Lindsay, I knew that I didn’t like the man that I was, and I didn’t know who I wanted to become. I had a voice in the Navy with my leadership roles and experience, but I had become institutionalized and carried a ton
of emotional trauma and baggage around with me everywhere I went,” he says. “I knew that I had to dump that junk and start fresh as the person I wanted to become, and Lindsay was always in my corner as I began to unpack everything.”
Her ability to listen is one of her greatest strengths, he says. “There have been situations over the years when I needed somebody to just listen to what I was going through. When working with vets, that is extremely important, and Lindsay gets
it. She gets us because she is one of us.”
Porter will graduate from Bellarmine in May. Last May, 40 military-affiliated students received Bellarmine degrees, the largest number in university history.
Making that journey with military students is extremely rewarding, Gargotto says. “The military education benefit gets way under-utilized because it's not just about sitting in a classroom. There are so many other things that have to be in
place to make us successful. Most of us have families, or we’re dealing with medical or other issues or just working jobs. So it’s great to be able to create these policies and work with faculty and staff to help them understand these
“It’s important that our students have a presence and a space here, and a voice. We haven't really had that before.”
Will you love me still if I become you
Believing you could mold me
into something else
I know this story
You want that girl only if she was like this
and like this and like this
A heathen you took
out of Appalachia you said
Can’t take me to civilization, you said
for a cigarette butt on the road
Celebration is forbidden
Idle time is forbidden
Law breaking is fine if you say it is
You have rules rules rules
And you say you’re not indoctrinated
You tell me stories
stories (the same stories)
Then you ask me a question
Then you interrupt and tell another story
How you fixed this. fixed that fixed someone’s life
You shhh me Order for me Tell me what not to order
I find myself conforming
To you I have been trained this way
Way too long
Because of fear
Being with you feels like judgement day everyday
Family traditions and past do excuse you
I make my story not you
Poetry in order of appearance: “Illustrated Woman,” When the Ashes Bloom (2022); “Woman of the Wild,” An Unbridled Cadence: A Bluegrass WarrioHer (2019); “The Night’s Edge,” When the Poppy Sheds: Poems of Recovery (2017); “Suffocating Directions,” When the Ashes Bloom