Year of the Veteran: Creativity, Healing, and Well-Being

two people look at handmade stain glass artwork during art exhibit

The Institute for Integrative Health, the Maryland State Arts Council, and the Maryland State Department of Education are proud to officially announce a new learning opportunity for community members, artists, and educators with the new Veteran-Ready Community Arts Micro-Credential course, a new suite of competency-based professional learning courses for facilitators of creative classrooms geared toward veterans. 

This program is just one of several programs offered to a variety of community throughout Maryland such as early childhood, elementary, middle, and high school students. 

The Veteran Artists of Sticks & Stones

During this event featured the Sticks & Stones exhibition, a joint initiative of the Institute for Integrative Health, Vet Arts Connect, and New Day Campaign. This exhibit works to lift the stigma of trauma related to substance abuse and mental health. To coincide with the Institute’s Micro-Credential announcement, this unique exhibit also featured the works of four veteran artists (profiles below) who found healing through artistic expression.

Earman R. Branch

Earman Branch was just preparing for high school graduation when he was drafted into the US Marine Corps to fight in the Vietnam War. After his 13-month tour, Earman grew angry about the war and the way returning veterans were treated. He struggled to find purpose and turned to art as an escape from real life. Today, Earman makes sculptures, take photographs, and writes poetry.  

headshot of an artist and his cat sculpture

ragtime

As a US Marine, ragtime endured 13 months in some of the worst fighting in the Vietnam War. Learning of the falsehoods told about the war ripped at his soul, and in 1974, he had an epiphany as he stared at a stained glass window of Richard Nixon in a California bar: he decided to study to become a stained glass artist. It wasn’t until 2006 that ragtime decided to combine his art with activism. For the Morgan Arts Council’s art auction, he created a stained glass peace sign. After it sold ragtime launched a new project, 1000 Points of Peace. He would make stained glass peace signs until the Iraq War was over or he reached 1000. A local musician and theater friends connected ragtime with Common Ground where he began his current work supporting mentally and emotionally wounded younger veterans. Today, ragtime is a retired stained glass artist living in the mountains of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, and cherishing his time as a grandfather.

artist and his stained glass creation

Jon Meadows

artist with his military themed sculpture

James Miller

artist james miller and his painting

Developing safety, persistence, trust

Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Acquiring Resources

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
    • “I think I kept trying to convince him I was crazy. And he kept saying, ‘No, you’re not crazy.’ […] You wouldn’t necessarily say a Vietnam Vet was crazy. You’d say they are responding like you’d expect to extraordinary circumstances.”
    • “I’m not the only one who have [sic] this problem. A lots, millions of people, you know. […] They don’t have nothing to do with that. I guess I have to live.”
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
    “You need a lot of energy and a lot of work … it takes a lot of work. It doesn’t just happen. It’s not like a magic wand.” This patient understood that they had to actively participate in the healing process.
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

Helping Relationships

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) “When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. Healing, in this sense, does not mean cured—none of the study participants were cured of their ailments—”but all developed a sense of integrity and wholeness despite ongoing pain or other symptoms.” In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” When we begin to heal, we find increased capacity for hope, renewed motivation to help others, and are more able to accept ourselves as we are.

Suffering

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. There is debate about whether or not one actually needs to experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. “The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”