Combat Veterans Use Art to Heal, Educate

Thursday, February 16, 2017

An array of plump coloring pencils and thin paint brushes to dab drops of water colors on small, sturdy canvas paper were spread out on tables so that audience members could participate and create. Frames protected a series of original sketches whose content openly expressed the innermost feelings of a U.S. Marine Master Sergeant. Francisco Martinezcuello, a 20-year Marine veteran, provided a powerful, real voice to another soldier’s personal story about a late military brother named Kyle, about apple butter and all while attempting to live in the present and mask his trauma.

Veterans and Art

This was the beginning of a Feb. 15 event, "Listen, Connect, and Rethink: Veterans and Art," in the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Theatre. The night was an opportunity for the audience to learn about veterans’ issues, specifically those coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), through personal experiences moderated by a former Navy SEAL and spoken by three veterans of war.

Equally important was the value and healing power of connecting veterans to art.

"We're exploring the power of art as a tool on the journey to recovery and as a means to build greater understanding between our nation's civilian and military communities," said Daniel Orth, KIPJ program officer for strategic peacebuilding. "In the IPJ, we believe in working with peacemakers to develop and disseminate new and creative approaches to end cycles of violence. For many years, the institute has recognized the important role that art can play in disrupting and ending these cycles."

Combat Arts San Diego, a non-profit organization since 2007, was present. Founder/Executive Director Elizabeth Washburn said Combat Arts "uses art as a vehicle to help post-9/11 combat veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries cope with stress and anxiety and to express thoughts and ideas that are hard to put into words. We also use art as a community engagement tool."

Combat Arts San Diego currently has an exhibit in USD's Humanities Center (Serra Hall 200) called Full Immersion: An American Patrol Base in Iraq. It's a jarring, realistic re-creation of an actual base (viewer discretion advised) and is free and open to the public from 12-5 p.m. Monday through Friday until March 3.

Finding Common Ground

Retired Navy SEAL Wally Graves III has a 29-year background in Special Operations, including nine years creating military combat stress and family resiliency programs. With more than 22 years as an active duty SEAL and Special Operations medic, he took part in multiple combat deployments. Upon retirement, he became the SEAL's family support program manager. He developed a Family Resiliency Program and a SEAL Wounded Warrior Program. He now works for the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine, doing research on traumatic brain injuries with active-duty SEAL and Marines. He's finishing a master's degree in social work at USC, specializing in military trauma. He supports art therapy for veterans as a creative outlet.

"Art reflects the human condition, art reflects our real-time experiences," he said, quoting American Philosopher John Dewey.

Graves spoke of art therapy and psychology being on a parallel trajectory. "Aesthetics is how you look at beauty; the study of aesthetics involves the mind and emotion of how to judge beauty and how it comes from within, comes from your condition."

Being an artist, he reasoned, offers a level playing field. "When an artist approaches the canvas, there are the five common senses. Everyone comes to the canvas the same way."

He then spoke of 18-20-year-olds and their "juvenile brains."

"Whether they're in college or they choose to enter the job market or join the military, they're the same. They're equal."

In the military, though, Graves said "it gets dicey when you've been at war for 15 years. War at the basic element is human-on-human aggression. Discussions help, but family, spouses, children and community, all are affected by war and what we do. We're trying to bridge the gap. We know veterans are having difficulty communicating with their families. Art can help make the invisible, visible."

Healing Through Art

Graves moderated a panel question-and-answer discussion with veterans Daniel Lopez, who retired as a Marine Staff Sergeant, Aaron Raher, who was an infantryman, turret gunner and, later, a combat instructor at Camp Pendleton, and Navy Hospital Corpsman Angelana Zayas. These veterans each did one or more deployments to Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Each experiences PTSD issues. Each provided answers about their military experience and thoughts on how they've changed following their service and how art has impacted and aided in their healing.

Lopez and Raher have found strength and support by their connection to Combat Arts San Diego. Lopez is a project coordinator who helps with all aspects of Combat Arts' programming, from teaching art classes, facilitating public art projects and serving as a liaison to the veteran population. Lopez also founded and runs a successful service dog training company.

Raher learned about Combat Arts while receiving treatment at OASIS, a Navy-sponsored in-patient program centered on combat-induced PTSD. In an OASIS art class, he realized the positive benefits of art and art therapy. He now gives museum tours to veterans in recovery, serves on panels and works on public art projects.

"Art opened a lot of doors for me," Raher said. "It showed me a new way to talk about things. I could put names on a canvas. Even if I don't want to talk about it or I'm tired, (art projects) make people think and become more aware of veteran issues. I've learned in my experience that I should pass on and explain it to others so they have a clear picture of what it means to go to war, what the cost really is. Maybe it can make our country better, safer and more responsible and peaceful if people can start talking to each other."

Zayas struggled with her emotions and even her will to live at one point. But she's now a holistic health practitioner and is completing a degree in sociology. She found healing through meditation, yoga and an art therapy practice that, during a 21-day period, sought to have her just draw.

"I drew whatever and I'd try to understand what I drew. It started making me think about it all. I was seeing professionals and after a while I got tired of talking about it over and over. It made it worse. But art opened me up to myself, about what I was going through and why."

— Ryan T. Blystone

This event is one of a series of events taking place on the USD campus this semester that are connected to the veteran experience. Click here for more information.

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