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ON THE SCENE: Using the arts to heal America’s veterans

February 9, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Last weekend, I went to Tampa Bay, Florida to attend a conference on using the arts to strengthen resiliency and support the healing and re-integration of military men and women into civilian society.

Tampa has a large veteran population, and their Veteran Affairs Medical Center is one of about a dozen centers of excellence, VA Medical Centers that are testing grounds for improving care. Further, the Tampa and St. Petersburg region abounds with high-caliber and diverse cultural resources and is home to the University of South Florida, a top-tier research university.

As a setting where veterans and veteran support agencies, the arts, education and research connect, Tampa was an ideal location for the first national conference on arts in health in the military to be held away from the Walter Reed National Military Center, site of the first three national conferences. Organized by Americans for the Arts in collaboration with the USF College of the Arts and Arts 2 Action Inc., the conference was an outcome of a national initiative launched six years ago.

Article Photos

Members of the musical trio War & Treaty are Thillman Benham and Tonya and Michael Trotter, Jr. Michael is an Iraqi War veteran.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

The military appreciation of the value of the arts to address trauma is not new. As an example, Gen. George Washington arranged for plays to be performed during the difficult winter at Valley Forge during the American Revolution as a means of maintaining the spirits and morale of those under his command. Following World War I, the army used participation in the arts as part of the treatment for those suffering from "shell shock" (PTSD); indeed their research on the benefits was a foundation for the establishment of the creative arts therapies as a discipline.

Army war veteran Michael Trotter Jr. illustrated how he first experienced the healing benefits of the arts during the second Gulf War. Trotter sang in church before his enlistment, and while in Iraq he was traumatized by the loss of a comrade. His captain, who knew of his love for singing, took him to one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, sat him down at a piano located in the grand ballroom, and encouraged him to learn how to play. In that improbable location starting with a few tentative notes, within six months he had composed and sung a eulogy to his friend, and soon he was being asked to do the same for others, one being the very captain who introduced him to the piano.

"The arts saved my life," said Trotter. "They took my mind off the pressures of war. Because other soldiers knew I wrote and sang music, when we came off patrol, we'd get together, write and play songs using a guitar or whatever. We'd forget for a moment that we were in Iraq. You'd think we were in Carnegie Hall!"

The conference was opened by Bob Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, and Nolen Bivens, Brig. Gen. U.S. Army (RET), Chair of the National Initiative for the Arts & Health Across the Military Continuum. Bivens recapped the progress over the past five years and the priorities established at the second Arts & Health in the Military National Roundtable held this past November at Fort Meyer. These priorities he summarized as localizing activities, establishing military-civilian partnerships, and women.

"I was a five-ton tractor trailer driver in the Army for the 4th Infantry Division from '93 to '96," said Saori Murphy. "I transported everything from howitzer rounds to land mines and concertina wire. They discovered I could draw and at times pulled me out to paint briefing band emblems. It was great! I would get out of duty for a whole week. After my return, and when the panic attacks started coming on pretty strong, I started using art as a breathing tool. The therapist at the VA told me I needed to start breathing as a way of controlling the panic attacks, as I'd hyperventilate. So I'd put paint on my brush when I inhaled and tried to paint a continuous line while I exhaled. Anytime I stopped exhaling, I'd lift my brush. My goal was to make a line as long as possible. Concentrating on painting a series of lines helped me control my breathing. Making the lines became meditative. I'd chose colors like blue and green that further helped me stay calm. Drawing the lines enabled me to calm my mind and calm the panic attacks."

As Murphy found painting so helpful, she decided to use what she learned to help other veterans. The inspiration for this career came from sharing a studio with an artist who had a friend, also a veteran, that was getting her degree as an arts therapist.

"I started shadowing her," said Murphy. "As we were both veterans, we got along like peas and carrots. I felt a great connection working with another veteran, and that gave me the idea to focus on working with veterans."

Two and-a-half years later, Murphy leads arts activities with the local VA medical center and several veteran support agencies. "This path is starting to open up for me, and I will never let go helping veterans," she said. "This is a must."

"The voices of our veterans need to be a little bit louder," said Col. Melanie Prince, Special Program Assistant to Air Force Surgeon General for Integrated Violence Response, Defense Health Headquarters. "Realize that sometimes those voices cannot speak, for whatever reason. We need to meet them where they are."

Prince went on to say that she felt the arts can be an effective tool for giving people who have experienced violence a voice.

"We are falling in love with the arts," she said. "I am a huge champion of that right now."

"The arts and healing are not separate," said Trotter. "They are one and the same. They end up often intertwining in the healing process. There are not levels of healing. It's all healing, and it's a process that's never ending."

Bringing it back home, Creative Healing Connections, a founding member of the National Initiative, established one of the first arts and healing retreats in the nation for women veterans. They are held in August at the Wiawaka Center for Women on Lake George. Women veterans from the Adirondacks come together with their counterparts from across the state and beyond.

As most veterans desiring to come are of modest means, Creative Healing Connections hold events like their upcoming Mad Hatters Ball Wednesday March 29, 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Hotel North woods to raise funds to provide scholarship support so any woman veteran who desires may attend.



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