Arts and Health in the Military: An Introduction

Posted by Marete Wester, Oct 02, 2013 1 comment

Marete Wester Marete Wester

The purpose was to get control of my problems, medical, personal, at home, family…basically trying to fight and conquer my demons. The angel has the authority, the power over this demon. That’s where I want to be. I want to have control over my problems, to have resiliency. It’s a struggle all the time but I’m slowly learning to control these issues I had before. Pinning down the demon, pinning down my problems…” SM, Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune

“St. Michael Conquers the Demon,” photo courtesy of The Art Therapy Program at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune (NHCL) “St. Michael Conquers the Demon,” photo courtesy of The Art Therapy Program at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune (NHCL)

Since 2001, more than two million U.S. troops have been deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF, War in Afghanistan), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation New Dawn (OND). The nature of these conflicts is unprecedented in the history of America’s all-volunteer force: over the course of more than a decade of war, America’s military service men and women have endured extended and multiple deployments, exposure to nontraditional combat (e.g., use of improvised explosive devices) and shortened time at home between deployments. The number of service members returning home who suffer from both physical and psychological traumas, including post-traumatic stress, loss of a limb, brain injuries and depression, has increased.

With the conflicts winding down and more troops returning home, there is a growing awareness among the public and private sectors, and the military itself, that the challenges facing service members, veterans, and their families require more than medical treatment to resolve.

Is there a role for the arts to play in addressing these challenges? Over the past two years, that question has been posed to more than 500 thought leaders, practitioners, and decision-makers from the military, government, corporations, foundations, and nonprofits  through a series of national convenings under the auspices of the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military. The results have been released this week in the new report, Arts, Health and Well-Being across the Military Continuum—White Paper and Framing a National Plan for Action.

Co-chaired by Americans for the Arts and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the National Initiative represents the first time the military has come together with a coalition of civilian public and private sector partners to ensure quality access to the arts for the health and well-being of service members, veterans, and their families in communities across the country. The White Paper chronicles the more than 2-year investigation and national conversation on how the arts help mitigate the challenges our military and veterans communities face. It provides a framework for how various stakeholders can work together to remove barriers and engage in greater cooperation and partnerships. It summarizes the extent of what we know about the National Initiative’s three critical areas of interest—research, practice, and policy—and provides an introduction to the kinds of programs and services currently taking place in the realm of arts and health in the military. The recommendations it contains are bold and inspirational. They are intended to stimulate further conversation and inspire action among all stakeholders, military and civilian.

Through this effort, we’ve seen first-hand how the arts help people to express themselves and share their experiences. When effectively employed in communities, the arts offer lifelong opportunities for service members, veterans, and their families not only to address, but to transcend, their challenges.

This is a rare moment in time. Society has indicated the willingness to empathize with our service members and veterans and what they and their families have endured. A growing number of Americans want to give back. Military leaders are more willing to explore new ideas and engage in partnership with the civilian community. There is evidence of a strong and significant role for the arts in addressing the needs. Moreover, for the first time, the question of how the arts can play a more active role is being addressed across all sectors—and with a sense of urgency that now is the time to get something done.

With recommendations for research, practice, and policy providing an initial framework for action, we invite others to not only to join in the conversation, but start new ones. We encourage individuals and organizations to find the ways and means to act individually and collectively. Let us know what you are doing in your community to open a dialogue, engage in partnerships, or provide programs and support. Share with us your challenges as well as triumphs. The moment is right; the time is now.

To learn more about the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military, please visit our website, and contact Marete Wester, Director of Arts Policy, Americans for the Arts at

1 responses for Arts and Health in the Military: An Introduction


October 30, 2013 at 6:28 am

I genuinely appreciated the scope and detail of the White Paper. As a researcher and civilian advocate of military-service personnel, as well as the Vice President of a nonprofit organization which encourages veterans to use various forms of artistic expression for healing (, the research in the white paper substantiates much of our efforts. Thus, we thank you.

However, as an academic and instructor at the post-secondary level, I found the lack of attention to art in post-secondary education curricula to be unsettling. The Post-9-11 GI Bill has been with us for nearly four years now and though the benefits for veterans and their military dependents are extremely generous for pursuing higher education, very rarely do students using the benefits get a chance to take art classes. The Bill stipulates that the classes covered must adhere to the student veterans' declared major. Unless the student is majoring in art, classes using art will not be covered by the GI Bill. Thus, one major issue I see in need of addressing is that more classes at the post-secondary level, particularly writing intensive courses, should integrate other forms of composing (e.g. artistic composing) to the curriculum.

Since most post-secondary institutions require at least one (if not a two) semester of a writing class. Many student veterans and military dependents "begin" their college careers in writing classes-- writing classes set the stage for their success, retention, or failure in higher ed. Thus, I wish the white paper would have noted the importance of art in required post-secondary education courses, such as writing courses, in order to be of greater benefit to the influx of student veterans pursuing post-secondary education, who could benefit from using art to deal with their difficult transitions.

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