Vietnam War veterans credit art to helping them find community and ‘be seen’
There’s an unexpected tool that a group of veterans in Oakland, California, credit to helping them cope with wounds they’ve carried for decades: art. Art — whether painting, drawing or other artistic mediums — has been shown to improve coping strategies, reduce pain, decrease symptoms of stress and improve quality of life. And, at the Oakland Vet Center, creativity has brought hundreds of Veterans a new sense of community and healing.
Five years ago, the Alameda County Arts Commission started a conversation with the Oakland Vet Center about combining their efforts for the good of local veterans. Fueled by funding from the California Arts Council and the 100 Families Program founded by Noel Perry, the Veterans Art Project was born.
Violet Juno, who coordinates the program for Alameda County Arts Commission with assistance from Veteran artist Fanny Garcia, said the partnership was magic from the start.
“Prior to this, the Arts Commission hadn’t done any programming with Vets, and the Vet Center hadn’t done art programming. So we were all learning together and building this program from scratch. And the results have been amazing.”
‘We don’t just make art. We make art together.’
Dr. David Joseph, a psychologist and Director of the Oakland Vet Center for the past 10 years, has long been a believer in using non-traditional forms of therapy — in addition to traditional forms — to treat trauma. So he was a strong supporter of the idea of incorporating art into the Vet Center’s programs from the beginning.
But he was blown away by the results.
“It’s really changed the whole character of the Vet Center. We don’t just make art. We make art together,” Joseph said.
Artwork lines the halls the Vet Center. Vibrant paintings, colorful quilts, collages of photographs and dog tags from the Veterans’ service.
“It’s turned this from a clinic into a community center. This is not our office. This is their home — where their art is, where their stories live,” Joseph said. “These activities foster community for us. We know for our population of Vets, one of the key things that’s often missing is a sense of belonging to a community.”
The Oakland Vet Center serves about 300 clients each year. The Center’s serves combat zone veterans or veterans who have experienced sexual trauma in the military.
“So 98 percent of the men and women who come here have experienced significant amounts of trauma,” Joseph added. “Art helps them go places that they probably would not have gone just through talking.”
A new perspective
Doug Thompson, a Vietnam Veteran, is a talented photographer and computer graphics artist. But he never imagined he’d pick up a paintbrush or dig out his old dog tags to create works of art. He said, with encouragement from Juno, he has stretched in ways he probably would not have welcomed on his own.
He points to one particular project as an example: a memory box in which the Veterans were asked to display items that recall their time in combat. “I think for a lot of Veterans at the Vet Center this was a difficult thing to do precisely because it brought up memories of those traumas. But the end result of the project was the creation of something that a person might want to hang on their wall,” Thompson said. “In doing so, you wind up with a different perspective on your service.”
He also surprised himself when he took part in a project — with some hesitation — where he created a landscape painting. At the end, he was caught up with all the ways the painting fell short of what he’d envisioned. But Juno took the painting and walked about 10 feet away and asked what he thought of it now.
“I said, wow, from where I’m sitting it looks much better than I thought,” Thompson recalled. “It was a great aha! experience for me. Sometimes it takes looking at things from another perspective to really appreciate what you’ve done.”
A chance to be seen
Some of Juno’s favorite experiences in their role leading the art classes at the Vet Center has been winning over reluctant participants. Juno said that some Vets walk in and say, “Oh no, we’re doing art today?”
“We really have to build trust,” Juno added. “We talk about how the goal is try something new, to step out of your comfort zone in a safe environment and just see what comes of it. I say, I would never bring you something that I hadn’t seen was helpful to other Vets.”
About half of the men and women who come regularly to the Vet Center fought in the Vietnam War. They did not receive a heroes’ welcome when they returned home. Some changed out of their uniform in the airport bathroom minutes after they returned to the US, so no one would know they were coming from Vietnam.
“So there’s this big part of their experience that they’ve kept to themselves. It’s gone unseen,” Juno said. “There’s something powerful about allowing yourself to be seen, and art makes that happen. That’s the really healing aspect of what we’re doing.”
In the Veterans Art Project’s five years, Alameda County leaders have commended the work of the Arts Commission and the Vet Center. An unlikely collaboration between two organizations, that’s helped hundreds of men and women who have sacrificed so much.
Alameda County Supervisor Richard Valle presented a commendation to those involved in the Veterans Art Project. He said, “I am pleased to present this commendation to the Oakland Vet Center to celebrate the artistic accomplishments of local Veterans participating in the Veterans Art Project and to honor the Oakland Vet Center’s commitment to providing innovative care for our Veterans.”
For Thompson, the work of the Veterans Art Project has nudged him to continue to stretch himself through art. He says that creating art as become a part of his healing, more than 40 years after serving in Vietnam.
“To me, all these art experiences are in a sense mindfulness exercises,” Thompson said. “If you’re involved in the present, you’re not catastrophizing about the future or dwelling on things that happened in the past.”
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Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.