Air Force veteran enlists feline friend, military memories for book trilogy on resiliency
Stars and Stripes April 11, 2023
An Air Force veteran, now a self-published author, draws from his experiences spanning a 20-year military career to illustrate personal resiliency when dealing with loss.
Dylan Bolander, a retired master sergeant and former public affairs specialist, recently released “Heathee and the Flight of Fate,” the third book in a trilogy starring a cartoon cat inspired by a beloved pet.
“Somebody told me a long time ago, write what you know,” he recently told Stars and Stripes. “So that's what I did. I took all my experiences that I've had, whether it's physically going to a duty station or being exposed to part of the culture when I was stationed overseas.”
Bolander used a different style for each volume in the trilogy, dubbed “The Rainbow Bridges Journey.” The first, "Heathee and the Double Rainbow Tale," is a children’s book; the second, “Heathee and The Mighty Mystic Mission," is a graphic novel; and “Flight of Fate,” released March 26, is an illustrated novel.
He has sold more than 600 books through Amazon, with positive reviews from children and adults. Bolander is ahead of the sales curve. Nearly 90% of self-published books sell less than 100 copies, according to data research group Wordsrated.com.
"I enjoyed them and the journey they took me on,” Navy veteran Patty Stafford, of Springfield, Ore., recently told Stars and Stripes. “They brought back so many memories of change and how hard changes can be. Dylan did an amazing job of providing coping mechanisms and strength for people of all ages.”
‘My emotional support’
Bolander for a time was part of the mortuary affairs team at Dover Air Force Base, Del., where he documented fallen service members as a videographer.
“I saw some things there and experienced some situations that were very hard for me to process,” he said. “It was very difficult emotionally and mentally for me to understand what I saw and what I was experiencing.”
That’s when he started to keep a journal.
“I remember, back in the day, people said, express yourself in your art to work through your emotions, and that's what I did,” he said. “I would write things down in a journal and I would just say what was on my mind, and I felt like I got it off my chest.”
After returning to his home station in San Antonio in 2014, Bolander said he began to experience severe anxiety and would stay inside as much as possible.
“I started noticing that I was shutting down more and more,” he said.
About this time, Heath, who inspired the main character in the books, entered Bolander’s life. A neighbor gave him the kitten, the last in a litter of strays.
“So, I took Heath in as I was experiencing more difficulties with what happened in Dover, from the effects of that,” he said. “That's when I started bonding with him more and more because he was like a comfort for me.”
Bolander retired from the Air Force in March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began. Then Heath got sick and died, which devastated him.
“He was basically my emotional support,” Bolander said, “and he was gone.”
A year later, an idea popped into his head.
“And the idea just clicked that I could write a book, to honor his memory, and use it to where he went on the Broken Rainbow Bridge, which is a metaphor for when you're having emotional struggles,” he said.
In his latest book, which draws on the author’s experiences at Misawa Air Base in northeastern Japan, Heathee is joined by friends from Japan, Iceland and New York City for adventures that focus on love, loyalty, family and how to stay resilient in trying times.
“Sometimes you might have sibling rivalry, or you might have parental, like a father-son conflict,” Bolander said. “But again, more positive messages, and most importantly, certain messages that people can discuss that might be able to help them out.”
Parents may use children’s books on difficult topics such as loss as a springboard for family discussions, Craig Haen, co-chair of the American Group Psychotherapy Association, said in a recent email. These books offer a psychological distance that lessens an emotional charge by focusing on another person or character through a predictable story structure, he said.
"Such books can be revisited over time to allow young people to digest ideas at their own pace, while also letting them know that they aren’t alone because someone else out there has experienced similar challenges and was able to grow from them," Haen said.
While Heathee’s adventure may have come to an end in “Flight of Fate,” the author hints at a spin-off series.
“I think I might need to take a trip or something and clear my mind and reset,” Bolander said. “I haven't really even taken a day off, but that's because it's a labor of love. It's me working on a two-year memorial to Heath.”