War’s Pain, Soft­ened With a Brush Stroke

VA’s Art Ther­apy Eases Bat­tle Stresses

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro - By Jackie Spin­ner

Eric Ed­mond­son can­not ex­press in words what he re­mem­bers about the fall day in Iraq 18 months ago when a road­side bomb and then a heart at­tack left him with shrap­nel wounds and brain dam­age. The 26-year-old vet­eran is no longer able to eat, walk or talk. But he can pick up a paint brush. When he does, his fa­ther sees in the for­mer Army sergeant’s face glim­mers of me­mory and heal­ing as he seeks to paint his thoughts on blank pa­per.

“I can tell by his ex­pres­sion he’s en­joy­ing it,” Ed Ed­mond­son said of the art ther­apy class Eric has taken in the weeks since he left a Vet­er­ans Af­fairs hospi­tal in Rich­mond for a private re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter in Chicago. “I don’t care what it looks like. It’s beau­ti­ful to me.”

Vet­er­ans with trau­matic com­bat in­juries of­ten find heal­ing power in art. They com­mu­ni­cate through pen­cil and char­coal draw­ings, sculp­ture and paint­ing. Their images range from calm, color­ful land­scapes to man­gled ve­hi­cles, pris­on­ers and car­nage. It’s a ther­apy rec­og­nized as es­pe­cially help­ful to those with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD).

Yet vet­eran and mil­i­tary hos­pi­tals em­ploy few art ther­a­pists. The Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Med­i­cal Cen­ter in the Dis­trict and Wal­ter Reed Army Med­i­cal Cen­ter pro­vide lim­ited art ther­apy classes. VA hos­pi­tals in Bal­ti­more, Rich­mond and Philadel­phia of­fer none. Na­tion­wide, VA med­i­cal cen­ters em­ploy 691 thera-

pists; of those, 36 are mu­sic and 18 are art ther­a­pists, ac­cord­ing to the De­part­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs.

Paula Howie, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Art Ther­apy As­so­ci­a­tion, was di­rec­tor of art ther­apy at Wal­ter Reed from 1980 to 2002. She had eight art ther­a­pists on staff dur­ing that time. Now the med­i­cal cen­ter has one full-time and one part-time art ther­a­pist.

“I think what was hap­pen­ing is that there were a lot of fund­ing cuts,” said Howie, who went into private prac­tice in Sil­ver Spring af­ter re­tir­ing from Wal­ter Reed. “Peo­ple started to say, ‘Do you want a nurse, or would you like to have an art ther­a­pist?’ ”

Army med­i­cal re­searchers have noted high rates of PTSD among Iraq war vet­er­ans, es­pe­cially those wounded in com­bat. A study led by Col. Charles W. Hoge at Wal­ter Reed found that wounded sol­diers had a 32 per­cent chance of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing PTSD symp­toms, which can in­clude psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress, de­pres­sion, sub­stance abuse, hy­per-vig­i­lance and di­min­ished ap­petite for pre­vi­ous hob­bies and in­ter­ests. Un­in­jured sol­diers who were stud­ied had a PTSD rate of 14 per­cent.

Bob Ault, an art ther­a­pist who works with vet­er­ans in Topeka, Kan., said the scarcity of art ther­a­pists in vet­eran and mil­i­tary hos­pi­tals is un­for­tu­nate. “Art ther­apy is a non-threat­en­ing way to help peo­ple with PTSD ex­pe­ri­ence their feel­ings,” he said.

David Read John­son, who di­rected an in­pa­tient unit at the VA’s Na­tional Cen­ter for PTSD in Con­necti­cut, said art pro­grams be­gan to dis­ap­pear af­ter he left the cen­ter in 1997.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, creative arts ther­a­pies were do­ing well,” said John­son, a psy­chol­o­gist who now runs a private PTSD cen­ter in New Haven. “But it’s just like in schools: You cut the arts first.”

John­son cited other fac­tors be­hind the trend. Some ther­a­pists and psy­chol­o­gists, he said, have been mov­ing away from art and em­pha­siz­ing cog­ni­tive be­hav­ior ther­apy. Such ther­apy helps pa­tients ex­am­ine the way they think about their trauma and how their thought process af­fects their be­hav­ior.

“Ev­ery­one knows for se­lect vet­er­ans, art ther­apy has been ex­tremely help­ful,” John­son said. “But it’s a silly thing to say art ther­apy is bet­ter than Prozac. It’s like say­ing a shirt is bet­ter than pants. You need them both.”

Drew Cameron, who served with the Army in Iraq from April to De­cem­ber 2003, said art has kept him grounded since he re­turned home and be­gan study­ing forestry at the Univer­sity of Ver­mont. Cameron’s paint­ings and po­etry were dis­played at Bus­boys and Po­ets in the Dis­trict mark­ing the an­niver­sary of the war last month. They in­cluded a bright-red im­age of a blood-smeared hand­print.

Cameron was not wounded in Iraq but has sought VA coun­sel­ing for emo­tional stress. “I think ev­ery­one comes back a changed per­son through the hor­ri­ble trauma,” he said. “It’s not en­tic­ing to talk about it when you can cre­ate and ex­press your­self through art.”

Art ther­apy grew in pop­u­lar­ity when Viet­nam vet­er­ans be­gan re­turn­ing to the United States with high rates of PTSD in the 1960s and ’70s.

The Na­tional Viet­nam Vet­er­ans Art Mu­seum in Chicago, es­tab­lished in 1981, was born from this move­ment. Now the mu­seum is start­ing to show­case the works of Iraq vet­er­ans. An ex­hibit called “Back From Iraq” will open May 19.

“We wres­tled with chang­ing the name of the mu­seum,” said Michael Hel­bing, the cu­ra­tor. “That was just to make it in­clu­sive. But we de­cided we had an iden­tity and could still be a venue for all vet­eran art.”

One artist fea­tured at the mu­seum is Aaron Hughes, 25, who was a de­sign stu­dent at the Uni- ver­sity of Illi­nois be­fore be­ing de­ployed to Kuwait in April 2003. He served in con­voy mis­sions in Iraq as a sergeant in the Illi­nois Na­tional Guard.

“When I was de­ployed, ev­ery­thing I had val­ued wasn’t true,” said Hughes, who is now against the war. He draws, paints and does the­atri­cal per­for­mances to ex­press his ex­pe­ri­ence. “I re­al­ized I needed to do art­work,” he said, adding that it helped him find “com­pre­hen­sion of my time in Iraq.”

At the VA Med­i­cal Cen­ter in the Dis­trict, vet­er­ans gather once a week for art ther­apy. On a re­cent af­ter­noon, a vet­eran from the 1991 Gulf War and an­other from World War II worked in the art room with a recre­ational ther­a­pist who is not cer­ti­fied in the field of art ther­apy.

John Spraker of Ol­ney, a for­mer Air Force staff sergeant, was in­jured in a non­com­bat ac­ci­dent dur­ing the 1991 war. At 58, he has been bat­tling PTSD for more than a decade.

“Some days I can think clearly, and when I’m not bat­tling de­pres­sion, I can usu­ally do some good stuff,” said Spraker, who was draw­ing a sol­dier with pen­cil. He had never done art be­fore be­gin­ning the ther­apy.

“I feel like I’m mak­ing progress,” he said, his speech slow and par­tic­u­lar. “I am on strong med­i­ca­tion for pain. Art re­laxes me. It lets me be creative and gives me some­thing to fo­cus on and get into the draw­ing. It does a lot for me.”




Top, a paint­ing by vet­eran Aaron Hughes, who uses art to com­pre­hend his time in Iraq. Drew Cameron says his art, cen­ter, has kept him grounded. Gulf War vet­eran John Spraker, above, takes a class in the Dis­trict.

Philip Buchanan is work­ing on a draw­ing in an art ther­apy class, one of the few run by Vet­er­ans Af­fairs, which em­ploys 18 art ther­a­pists na­tion­wide.


Philip Buchanan, 81, who served in the Navy dur­ing World War II, par­tic­i­pates in art ther­apy at the D.C. Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Med­i­cal Cen­ter. The classes are used to help vet­er­ans over­come post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

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