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Navigating the road to recovery through the healing arts

Wounded, ill, and injured Air Force and Marine Corps service members and veterans participate in "A Day of Healing Arts: From Clinic to Community" during Warrior Care Month at National Harbor in Maryland, Nov. 21, 2019. (DoD photo by Roger L. Wollenberg) Wounded, ill, and injured Air Force and Marine Corps service members and veterans participate in "A Day of Healing Arts: From Clinic to Community" during Warrior Care Month at National Harbor in Maryland, Nov. 21, 2019. (DoD photo by Roger L. Wollenberg)

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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — With hands over hearts, and looking upon the stars and stripes of the American flag while singing of the national anthem, participants kicked off the yearly “A Day of Healing Arts: From Clinic to Community” event, hosted by the United States Air Force Wounded Warrior Program or AFW2 and supported by the Defense Health Agency’s Recovery Coordination Program.

Every November, known as Warrior Care Month, several activities and events take place in the National Capital Region in recognition of personal triumphs as service members recover, rehabilitate, and reintegrate beyond the military. The event allows service members, as well as caregivers of the wounded, ill, and injured community, to showcase how healing comes through various forms, specifically through art.

Heading into year five, the Sunset Room at the National Harbor is once again filled with “blue” thanks to the coordination and efforts of the AFW2 program. Service members, caregivers, and family members come together to share stories of resilience and recovery.

“Being able to participate every year and witness the strength of our service members at the event with the AWF2 program is always a very humbling experience,” said Sandra Mason, Defense Health Agency Recovery Coordination Program Director.

See what a little love can do

Medically retired from a traumatic physical and sexual assault in 2012, Air Force Senior Airman Hannah Stolberg struggled for years to get back to a place of love. She describes her journey as feeling “isolated” and like she was “drowning.” After four surgeries and several spinal injections, she found her life-changing moment when she participated in an April 2016 C.A.R.E event with the AFW2 in Eglin, Florida.

“After being told that I can’t do this anymore or can’t do that anymore, AFW2 is where I was told I can,” said Stolberg. She began by taking resiliency classes and finding acrylic paint-pouring as an outlet to express her emotions, struggles, pain, and abuse of alcohol. “I suffered from insomnia and nightmares, so when I couldn’t sleep, I would just paint away.” She describes it as her way of journaling.

Mr. Guy Kiyakawa, DHA Deputy Director, addresses guests, service members, caregivers and family members at the annual A Day of Healing Arts: From Clininc to Community event at the National Harbor Nov. 21, 2019. "It's about all of you, we see you and we recognize your strength."
Kiyakawa addresses guests, service members, caregivers and family members at the annual A Day of Healing Arts: From Clinic to Community event at the National Harbor Nov. 21, 2019. "It's about all of you, we see you and we recognize your strength."

“It was too hard. What I couldn’t put down on paper, I used the canvas and colors to reflect what I was going through at the time,” said Stolberg. Eventually, she began co-teaching the paint-pouring classes and helping others through their recovery by sharing her story. Stolberg recognizes that her road to recovery wasn’t taken alone. She recalls that when she would push back, and was filled with anger and bitterness, the AFW2 program did not give up on her.

“Anger and bitterness poisons your whole life, but look at what a little love can do. That’s what AFW2 did for me,” explained Stolberg, who has participated in A Day of Healing Arts with AFW2 for the past two years and feels it’s her responsibility to reach back to those who are in need. One of Stolberg’s ways of giving back was to become an AFW2 program ambassador. She now travels and tells her story to those who share similar struggles and encourages service members and their families that they too can heal and find that light again.

“Happy mistakes” lead to the healing effects of laughter

It’s not obvious that B.J. Lange is a two-time testicular cancer survivor with traumatic brain injury, PTSD, depressive disorder, and anxiety issues. Lange is a professional actor and comedian who uses his experience as a wounded service member to connect with his audience. Coaching service members on how to heal through improv comedy is his way of contributing to the breakthrough from darkness. The “Happy Mistakes” are a group of service members who learn through improvisation that comedy is a great art form that goes beyond just entertainment.

Rock to recovery

Many service members who shared their stories contributed their healing process to Rock to Recovery, a band founded by professional musician Wes Geer. Although not military-affiliated, Geer understands the struggles service members and their families since he has battled drug and alcohol abuse in the past. Geer founded Rock to Recovery as a way to transform lives through music. With over 450 sessions per month, Rock to Recovery is music to the ears, and medicine to the mind, soul, and healing hearts of a community that has difficulty finding other means of coping. Rock to Recovery brings joy to caregivers and family members as well.

“The Blue Halos,” an Air Force band from the community of caregivers, rocked this year’s crowd with caregiver-written songs to prove once again that music is another way of getting to a place of togetherness and unity.

Gratitude, support, resiliency, and encouragement were just a few words used by service members and caregivers alike to describe their journey. As they spoke to the day’s participants, much of their appreciation for the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program – and what it’s been able to accomplish – could be summed up in one word: family. With the support of family, any and all can be achieved.

To learn more about your service’s Wounded Warrior Program, please visit the Warrior Care webpage.

Read Mr. Thomas McCaffery's memo officially recognizing November as Warrior Care Month.

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