The Arts and Veterans: A Mighty Force

Posted by Mr. Robert Lynch, Jun 30, 2017

The Fourth of July is a time to honor and reflect on the determination and sacrifices of our service members in making our freedom possible. Over the years, stories have emerged of how veterans across the country come back—and what they give back—after overcoming sometimes decades of struggles with combat and service-related illness and injuries. Many of these veterans say that the arts saved their lives—but in finding their creative voice, they are also enriching our lives too.

In the Army’s Transportation Corps, Master Sergeant Crystalann Duarte organized gear to remove land mines in Bosnia, transported materials to fight oil fires in Saudi Arabia, and survived being shot at in Honduras by terrorists while trying to build a road. She earned a Bronze Star NATO Medal in Saudi Arabia, an Expeditionary Medal in Bosnia, and later worked for the Department of Defense, ensuring the bodies of soldiers killed in combat were safely returned to their families. But Duarte has also battled post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through her retirement.

Duarte took up quilting as a creative outlet. One of her art quilts was part of the recent 2017 Women Veterans Art Exhibit, presented by the Veteran Artist Program and the VA’s Center for Women Veterans. Her work, “Aboriginal Dream,” has a black and gray background with a surge of bright colors pushing away the darkness, symbolic to so many of those who suffer with PTSD. Duarte says that living with PTSD is debilitating, but she finds great joy in teaching other veterans how sewing and art quilting can be a means of expressing themselves.

Army veteran Jim Stevens was shot during a reconnaissance mission in 1970 during the height of the Vietnam War. For 23 years, he lived with the bullet fragments in his skull—until the fragments shifted in 1993, triggering a stroke, and leaving him legally blind. For many years, he spent time being angry—until his two youngest daughters reminded him how much he had loved art, and encouraged him to get back to it.

Thanks to art therapy at the Veterans Administration and with the aid of an adjustable monocular lens they provided, he has perfected “monofilament painting”—a meticulous art process requiring laying out 129 strands of fishing line, covering each strand with acrylic paint before repeating the process seven more times. The winner of numerous awards, Stevens has exhibited in art galleries and remains a lifetime member of Denver’s VFW Post 1—the oldest VFW in the country, located in the Denver Santa Fe Arts District, and home of America’s first Veterans Art Council. VAC provides a platform for artists in all disciplines who have served in the Armed Services to express their unique voice and enrich civic life for all citizens.

Millions of our veterans and their families struggle with both the visible and invisible wounds of war every day. From WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf, to Iraq and Afghanistan, the transition challenges for veterans include coping with loss of purpose and identity, and treating signature wounds, such as traumatic brain injury and PTSD. While the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs must do their part, America as a whole must step up to meet our moral and social obligation to our veterans.

The arts are doing their part. Veterans like Duarte and Stevens have followed a path of service to healing and reintegration into the community through the arts, supported by public and private agencies from national to local. In 2011, in collaboration with national, state and local organizations, Americans for the Arts launched the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military, to support artists, arts organizations, and Veterans Service Organizations engaged in service to the military and veteran communities. It recognizes the need to join hands across sectors to leverage resources, and create strong networks that meet the needs of these communities at the grassroots level where programs can have the greatest impact.

Our own work at Americans for the Arts with the VA Office of Patient-Centered Care and Cultural Transformation, which supports The Healing Arts project in partnership with Johnson & Johnson, provides training and helps VA healthcare practitioners create action plans for increasing arts programs and partnerships at VAs. This has been happening in Arkansas, California, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Texas.

The National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) partnership with the Department of Defense that launched Creative Forces—The NEA Military Healing Arts Network received a powerful endorsement and infusion of support from Congress in FY2017 through a $2.6 million appropriation to expand into 11 sites and begin a telehealth program. Americans for the Arts is proud to be the administrator of this project that focuses on the use of creative arts therapies in the treatment of traumatic brain injury and associated psychological health, and encourages community-based arts programs that allow patients and their families to explore art practices as part of their healing process.

Local Community Arts Summits are being planned across the entire Creative Forces network in 2017, supported by state and local arts agency partners. The first summit took place on June 15 in Virginia Beach. Sponsored by the Virginia Commission for the Arts and Virginia Veterans and Family Support Services, it featured the launch of the new Creative Forces site at Joint Expeditionary Base at Little Creek-Fort Story, and plans for enhanced clinical and community support for active-duty military and veterans and their families.

More public and private partnerships that support this kind of work are happening throughout the country, and it helps that evidence is growing that shows that the challenges veterans and their families confront are mitigated through creative arts therapies and participation in the arts. Relatively small public sector investments—such as the NEA Creative Forces program—not only leverage additional resources at the state and local levels plus private philanthropy, but catalyze critical dialogue, participation, and engagement that bridges our military/civilian divide.

Current political efforts to eliminate the budget for the NEA and the other federal cultural agencies are short-sighted in light of what the evidence shows. They undermine Congress’ support for efforts to expand partnerships and resources, add to the body of research, and improve the health and wellbeing of veterans—those who continue to sacrifice the most for the security of our country.

Americans for the Arts is committed to ensuring that these critically helpful federal projects succeed. You can help us preserve the NEA by joining the Arts Action Fund to let your elected officials know you support the arts. If you or your organization are serving the military and veteran communities through the arts, visit the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military (NIAHM) website for upcoming events, latest reports, and news about what is happening across the country. Submit your information to the National Network Directory, and join the NIAHM Facebook Group. Learn more about military and veteran culture, and launching programs and partnerships by downloading Americans for the Arts’ Arts Deployed: An Action Guide for Community Arts and Military Programming. Celebrate the creative lives of our veterans by seeking out local events, such as the Women Veterans Exhibit in July in Asheville, NC; St. Louis, MO; and Milwaukee, WI; and the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.

There is much you can do, and still more to be done, in supporting our service members and veterans. Join us in answering the call.

This blog also was posted on The Huffington Post.