Art's Creative Healing Connections for Members of the Military

Posted by Mr. Naj Wikoff, Nov 01, 2013 0 comments

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The arts help bring home those who have put and continue to put their lives in harm’s way to protect and promote the values and way of life we cherish.” Tom Smith should not be alive. In Vietnam he was a helicopter scout pilot for the 1st Cavalry Division. In Vietnam, helicopter pilots flew through the heaviest concentrations of enemy fire and an attrition rate twenty times that of U.S. Air Force pilots, and of them, the Cavalry pilots were hit hardest having a forty to fifty percent survival rate and a life expectancy of three weeks. His job was to fly at treetop level, often at 30 mph or less to locate the enemy usually by drawing their fire. Smith describes the cause of his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) not as a result of such horrific experiences of being shot down, the rotors being snapped off by the trees, or looking at the gunman bellow whose bullets are ripping through the fuselage, but by living with the daily grind of fear.

For me PTSD comes from living in an environment of fear more than the events that precipitated it,” said Smith. “When I got shot down and was on fire that was really scary. There was no place to put the helicopter down. I had to fly a burning helicopter for an inordinately long time to crash it and that was terrifying. When I got shot down through 150 feet of trees and had the rotor blades ripped off it was quite terrifying and painful as my jaw and back were broken. I went in knowing what I was getting into, but it’s the daily living in an environment of fear – the fight or flight fear that doesn’t go away, that stays with you after you leave the hospital and into civilian life - it changes you as much if not more than the combat situation itself.

For Smith, it was writing, taken up decades later, that helped him come to terms with and finally be able to speak openly about what it means to living with PTSD and its impact on himself and on his family. Smith’s experience is one that many veterans across the country are increasingly coming to realize; the arts can help them connect with themselves, with others who have shared similar experiences, with their family, and with their community.

Five years ago, Creative Healing Connections, an organization I founded a dozen years earlier to serve women living with cancer and other chronic diseases, expanded its programs to use the arts and nature to help women - active duty military and veterans - living with the outcomes of military service.

Our tools are the arts and nature. We create healing retreats; safe spaces where any women who is serving or has served in any branch of the military at any time can come and connect with others, learn how to use the arts to give individual and collective voice to their emotions and experiences, practice techniques for building resiliency and grounding themselves, and develop a support network to help carry them forward so they no longer feel alone. Participants have said, “They taught us how to calm ourselves, how to put things in perspective. What I learned will not only help me, but I can use what I learned to help others.” And, “What was most important for me was being able to talk about my disability and the strengthening power I felt from my vet sisters and the staff.” And, “I finally had a chance to tell my story.” And, “I learned that I am not alone.

Watch our video for other participant testimonials. Creative Healing Connections has held similar retreats for active duty men in partnership with New York State’s National Guard, and for military spouses and military families in partnership with Homeward Bound Adirondacks. These initiatives, as well as experiences like Tom Smith’s, are part of a growing national awareness of the values of the arts in healing as outlined in the recently released Arts, Healing and Well-being across the Military Continuum: A White Paper and Framing a National Plan for Action released by Americans for the Arts on behalf of the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military, I encourage anyone involved in any aspect of the care and well-being of our military, their families, and their caregivers to read it. It is filled with many examples of how the arts are making a profound difference – and lays out a plan for increasing the reality and potential of the arts in the military and in civilian life. The paper puts forth recommendations under three broad headings: research, policy, and practice. The paper is an outcome of the Arts & Health in the Military National Roundtable held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and two National Summits: Arts, Healing and Well-being across the Military Continuum, held at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

These activities were organized by a National Steering Committee pulled together in the spring of 2010 consisting of leaders in the arts, health, and the military. I am proud to be one of the arts and healing leaders that attended these events. One message that came out of these events is that the use of the arts in the military is not new. As Robert Lynch, President of Americans for the Arts, always reminds us - George Washington commissioned plays to help his beleaguered troops emotionally survive the rigors of wintering at Valley Forge.

Another message is that the arts can be extremely valuable in building military and military family resiliency prior to deployment, as well as during the transition back into civilian life - which as the late Joseph Campbell noted on his treatise on the Hero’s Journey, is the most difficult part of a military member’s journey. There is a lot of solid research on the value of the arts in reducing the experience of pain, and improving medical and therapeutic outcomes, but there is a great need for additional research to be done.

This paper is a call for action and an invitation for people and organizations across the country to tap into their cultural resources as a valuable tool for helping bring home those who have and continue to put their lives in harm’s way to protect and promote the values and way of life we cherish. Tom Smith’s books are: Easy Target: The Long Strange Trip of a Scout Pilot in Vietnam, Facing PTSD: A Combat Veteran Learns to Live with the Disorder, and When Lemmings Fly. Creative Healing Connections can be reached at:

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