What happens to soldiers after they lay down their weapons and come home? How can they express the panoply of intense experiences and feelings that, for some veterans and sometimes for years, can fester and scar more harshly than any shrapnel wound?
(click for larger version)
Art has long been considered a valuable therapeutic outlet for soldiers. According to Lauren Hagemann, project coordinator for the Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island's Resiliency & Recovery Initiative for Military Families, "The creative arts have proven to be a transformative activity that has helped our nation's heroes with issues related to readjustment and emotional expression."
This week, VHALI collaborates with the Quogue Library to present "Visual Valor," the Alliance's first exhibit of veterans' artwork.
Hagemann is currently working on her PhD in psychology. She said this week that she's always been very intrigued by how vets use art to deal with the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A volunteer at the Quogue Library, she thought the facility's exhibit space would be a perfect venue for the Alliance's first show. "I approached the director and she was all for it," Hagemann explained.
About 20 pieces, a mix of artwork painted for both recreational and therapeutic purposes, comprise the exhibit. There are fine pieces alongside "rough sketches" completed during military wellness exercises. The Alliance's outreach mission includes interacting with the veteran's home in Stony Brook. Thanks to that collaboration, "Visual Valor" will include pieces by elderly artists who served in World War II and Korea as well as "really raw material" crafted by veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, Hagemann reported.
Long Island has the second largest veteran population in the United States and is home to 138,000 veterans.
As the country wraps up its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the significant public health issues related to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury will return home with many of the returning troops, according to statistics compiled by the Foundation for Art & Healing. While veterans of past wars also suffered from the symptoms of what we now know as PTSD – nightmares, anxiety, depression, flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, and hyper-arousal – the statistics from Iraq and Afghanistan are startling:
• 2.2 million served in Iraq or Afghanistan
• One in five returning veterans suffer from PTSD, and lacking treatment, the number could be as high as 1 in 3 (2008 RAND study) or 440,000 to 770,000 service people with PTSD
• 3400 suicides by active duty service personnel (one suicide every 36 hours)
• One third of military spouses report depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders
"As we face the growing public health challenge of PTSD/TBI, exploring new paths to progress is essential," the Foundation's website asserts. "Creative expression based programs are one such path."
Formed under the umbrella of the Mental Health Association of Nassau County, the Alliance's mission is "to promote the health and well-being of Long Island veterans and their family members through advocacy, and a broad array of services." This spring it will host a statewide veterans mental health and recovery conference.
The Veterans Health Alliance also aims to provide a wide range of services to family members, spouses and children. These resources include support groups led by fellow military family members and spouses, community networking events that focus on self-care, fun events for families and children, and trainings geared toward wellness and suicide recognition.
In the PBS documentary They Drew Fire, World War II combat artist Ed Reep said, "I fought the war more furiously perhaps with my paintbrush than with my weapons." A Bronze Star recipient, Reep taught painting and drawing in colleges in South Carolina and California after he returned home from the war.
Released in 2000, the documentary revealed the stories of WWII combat artists, a cadre of 100 artists and civilians who chronicled the war through art, often as battles were underway.
And when the battle continues, underway on home soil after military service ends, organizations like the Veterans Health Alliance and programs like "Visual Valor" help returning heroes use their paintbrushes to move towards personal victory.
"Visual Valor" will be on view at the Quogue Library throughout the month of November. An opening reception will be held Sunday from 3 to 5 PM.