Kern County veterans Patrick Plugge and Christine Yandek have been selected to appear at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in Buffalo, N.Y., as first place winners in the national competition.

Darla A. Baker / Tehachapi News

Healing for our nation's veterans comes in many forms.

The National Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities use the creative arts as one form of rehabilitation to help veterans recover from and cope with physical and emotional disabilities.

Army veteran Christine Yandek of Tehachapi has won first place in a national competition for veterans, and has beem invited to perform her winning musical comedy routine at the 2017 National Veterans Creative Arts Competition this October in Buffalo, N.Y.

Yandek will perform as a duet with Patrick Plugge of Bakersfield.

Veterans enrolled at VA healthcare facilities are eligible to enter the competition, which features 51 categories in the visual arts division, in addition to 100 categories in performing arts. That's where Yandek. They submitted through their originating VA facility in Los Angeles, the closest available to veterans in Kern County.

Through a national judging process, first, second and third places were awarded in each category during April, May and June.

Yandek and Plugge were selected from the thousands of others who entered across the nation this year to perform at the final festival in Buffalo. It is held each year as a celebration and grand finale and will feature a culmination of the talent competition, with approximately 120 veterans exhibiting their artwork or performing in a gala variety show.

Yandek, 42, and Plugge, 69, met while performing "Man of La Mancha" at the Stars Dinner Theatre in Bakersfield.

Both have service-connected disabilities.

Yandek served two consecutive enlistments beginning in 1994. She was a combat medic in Iraq. During her second tour, she was hit by shrapnel that penetrated her abdominal muscle and nicked her liver. She was discharged in 2014.

Plugge joined the United States Military Academy, in West Point, N.Y.

“There are a lot of wounded warriors here in Kern County," Plugge said. "What we are doing here, today, is getting the word out to veterans that this program is out there for people to participate in. It is so important that they know how important the arts are to healing.”

After she was stateside again, Yandek said, she sought counseling, and it was a counselor who suggested the arts as a form of healing. Yandek had told her counselor that she had a background in dance and competitive figure skating.

“Using music and the arts was one of the tools in our toolbox that we used as medics in Iraq at the combat support hospital," Yandek said.

Yandek said her formal military training did not prepare her for the aftermath of war when dealing with her patients as a medic.

“As wonderful as our training was that helped us achieve a 92 percent survivability rate of catastrophic injuries on the battlefield in the Middle East, there is no chapter in the combat medic textbook that tells you what to do and how to make someone’s world OK again when you have to walk into that patient’s room after their spouse has just abandoned them," Yandek said. "You can take their vital signs and take their physical pain away from them, but you can’t take their emotional pain away and their psychological pain away, and that’s where the arts come in."

Plugge said the arts weren't a source of therapy for him as he always loved to perform on stage.

“I just love the idea of creating something that is beautiful, something that other people will enjoy," Plugge said. "There’s enough ugliness in the world, and we both seen enough ugliness. To me, it’s all about about creating something that will either move people emotionally or sustain them enough to take them out of their life for a little while.”

The veterans' winning entry was for their performance to "The Song That Goes Like This." They are among the top 25 entries out of 3,400 received, and get an all-expense paid trip to New York for a week.

Said Yandek, “This is something that you do because it makes you feel good and gives you a way to step away from the difficult things that you have been through, and for a veteran, that makes absolute sense. We get to give something of ourselves to others for the greater good."

Small Town, Big People is a series of stories focused on interesting people in the Tehachapi community. If you would like to nominate someone for a future installment, e-mail editorial@tehachapinews.com.

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect how Patrick Plugee joined the military. He joined the military as a cadet at the US Military Academy at West Point in 1967.