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Service members share ‘art’ of healing

Air Force veteran Adrianna Ruark works on a drawing. (DoD photo by Roger L. Wollenberg) Air Force veteran Adrianna Ruark works on a drawing. (DoD photo by Roger L. Wollenberg)

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Service members, veterans and caregivers gathered to share their love of comedy, visual artistry, performance artistry, and share stories of how the arts saved their lives around the National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, Nov.16, 2017. “A Day of Healing Arts: From Clinic to Community" is an ongoing collaboration with organizations across military health agencies, community-based organizations and the National Endowment of the Arts.

“Today is about story telling. I want us all to share stories of the resilience of our military force. Art is just as important as athletics,” said Barbara Wilson, Office of Warrior Care director of training and outreach. “I can see the spark in your eyes and how much you enjoy the work you are doing. Thank you for sharing that with us.” 

Air Force Staff Sgt. Natalie Lopez talks with Army veteran, and former Green Beret, Michael Rodriguez about her painting. (DoD photo by Roger L. Wollenberg)Air Force Staff Sgt. Natalie Lopez talks with Army veteran, and former Green Beret, Michael Rodriguez about her painting. (DoD photo by Roger L. Wollenberg)

The event recognized wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans showcasing the various ways music, performance art, visual art and other activities inspired their recovery. Though each story and situation differed from person-to-person the narrative remained the same: art saved my life.

Guest speaker retired Army Brig. Gen. Nolen Biven expressed how art can help people navigate differences, boost self-esteem, process tragedy, and connect them with their humanity.

“We want to restore individual services members, families and caregivers,” said Biven. “This is a grassroots effort among the art community to heal service members and veterans. People can select themselves for the program and sleeve the stigma.”

Art of Healing

After a short comedy show from the Veterans of Comedy, participants were able to walk around an art gallery showcasing work created by service members and veterans. They also had the opportunity to talk with the artists, like Air Force veteran Adrianna Ruark, about their pieces, the meanings, and how creativity helped them cope.

“I’m a survivor of childhood abuse. Back then, my grandmother’s garden was a safe haven for me. Now I use my art,” Ruark said. “I love to express how I’m feeling through my drawings. I got my grandmother’s flower garden tattooed on my arm to remind me of my safe space and to remind me to be a safe haven for others.”

Art of Recovery

Rock to Recovery founder and former Korn guitarist, Wes Geer, led a group of caregivers in the vocal performance dedicated to their loved ones.

“When we end up in these dark places, whether they [are] from alcohol, isolation, etc., I think the symptoms are similar,” said Geer. “I ended up in a rough space. I lost my career. I lost my friends. Music became very important for me because it showed me that it could transform how I felt. I hear people say all the time, ‘but I’m not musical,’ but if I turn on some music right now, what’s the first thing your body does? Dance. So yes, we are all musical.”

Rock to Recovery is a non-profit that helps people in recovery, whether from addiction or trauma, learn to express themselves through songs they compose during workshops.

Regardless of a person’s prior musical experience or ability, Geer said this music therapy helps people explore their feelings and offers a creative, intimate outlet for expression.

“When you rock out, you do it organically. We aren’t trying to be perfect – this is just us trying to express [what’s in] our hearts and our souls,” Geer said.

Veteran Ja’Miracle Morant joined the Air Force for a better chance at “making her own choices,” but trauma from a sexual assault “flipped her world upside down.” Rock to Recovery helped her put her world back together.

“When [the assault] happened I didn’t know what to do. I was ready to die and didn’t feel like I had anything left in life, but then I got an email from Wounded Warriors inviting me to an event in Florida,” said Morant. “One day, someone heard me singing and told me I should try Rock to Recovery.”

Art of Connection

The artists at the event seemed to echo one point: people improve their healing when they connect with others.

“Music and poetry have always been my release, my oxygen. [Rock to Recovery] helped me express myself and realize that I’m much stronger than I thought. Having people who care and understand is the best part of the program.”

Morant, motivated by her journey, is learning how she can help others.

“I’m in college now – a double major in social work and psychology,” she said. “I want to help other people like me.”  

As the event came to close participants exchanged long hugs, shared words of encouragement, and expressed gratitude.

Bill O’Brien, senior innovation advisor at National Endowment of Arts, challenged people to think differently about art and how to use it to “create an opportunity” to heal. He shared how the Greeks considered the arts as a critical element to military readiness because it helped warriors prepare fully: “mind, body, spirit and soul.”

“I'd like to use the arts to do that for our service members and veterans,” O’Brien said.

To learn more about the ways the Office of Warrior Care promotes creative expression through art, music, writing and dance for service members and veterans, visit their website.

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