Through their varied works of art, veterans find healing, acceptance, and camaraderie as part of the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, a program annually co-presented by the American Legion Auxiliary.
Veterans find unexpected support and strength at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival
Deidre Hines, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran, describes the anxiety she regularly experiences as “a thousand angry butterflies beating against my chest.”
Hines, who has lived in a veterans homeless facility in California, sought to capture those feelings in an art project. With little money to spare, she stopped at thrift stores in search of canvases of other people’s artwork that she could purchase for a couple of dollars.
Those previously used canvases provided the foundation for her art project, which features street maps and hundreds of tiny paper butterflies that she created using a butterfly-shaped hole punch. Those two major elements of the piece — butterflies and maps — represented both suffering and reflection.
The butterflies depict her anxiety, that feeling of them beating against her chest, while the maps represent her military career. “It was important that I used the maps because, collectively, they represent my travels around the world — my military career, which brings me to where I am now,” Hines said.
The maps and butterflies eventually would blend with other elements of the piece to form “Anatomy of My Anxiety,” Hines’ entry for the 2016 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival (NVCAF) in the Special Recognition, Mental Health Challenges, Mixed Media category in the visual arts division.
“The idea that I’m here right now totally blows my mind,” she said.
The 2016 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, held Oct. 10-16 in Jackson, Miss., brought together 120 gold-medal winning veterans from around the nation to celebrate their achievements and show off their talents in 147 categories spanning three divisions: performing arts, including dance, drama, and music; visual arts; and creative writing. The creative arts have helped many of these veterans recover from and cope with physical and emotional disabilities, but the festival itself also comes as a form of rehabilitation.
“There are things that nobody else is going to understand. The other veterans will know. You don’t have to explain yourself,” said Lana Gillaspie, U.S. Navy veteran and returning NVCAF participant.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which co-presents the festival with the American Legion Auxiliary, women are the fastest growing group of veterans. Among women veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 20 percent have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Of those who served during the Vietnam era, a study found that 27 percent have suffered PTSD during their postwar lives. That’s compared with 31 percent of men who served during the Vietnam era who have suffered from PTSD since returning home.
“In the general population, women are twice as likely as men to develop post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Dr. Sonja Batten, VA’s Deputy Chief Consultant for Specialty Mental Health.
Research shows that high levels of social support are important women veterans, and that veterans who have this support are less likely to suffer from PTSD.
Auxiliary magazine talked to three women participants about their journey to the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival and how the event helped them heal.
First-time NVCAF participant Hines is a retired U.S. Air Force veteran of 20 years, serving across three wars — including Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
She joined the U.S. Air Force because of a desire to travel — and she did, having multiple overseas assignments during her military Group Art career before retiring in 2012.
Hines has experienced homelessness, loneliness, isolation, anxiety, and depression, and tried other forms of therapy to treat her PTSD before discovering the creative arts. Her “Anatomy of My Anxiety” art is a visual representation of what she’s experienced over the years.
“Art has been a saving grace,” she said. “It helped me heal. It helped me understand things that I hadn’t been able to understand about myself. It’s a safe place. Art is the only place in my life where I’ve allowed myself to not only make mistakes, but embrace them.”
A self–described “isolator,” Hines was anxious about coming to the festival and leaving herself vulnerable, but ultimately, she said, the festival forced her to interact with others. It proved to be more of a supportive outlet than she anticipated.
“I’ve been triggered a few times, got emotional and weirded out. I hate that, but what makes it OK at the end of the day is that every single time that I’ve cried or been upset, a veteran has come up to me at some point and just said, ‘me too,’” Hines said. “I think that’s the most powerful thing you can tell anybody with any type of disability or mental illness. It reminds me that I’m not alone.”
Hines, who now lives in New Jersey, plans to return to school to study fine art in the near future.
Jacqueline Kochinsky’s journey to NVCAF started decades ago in East St. Louis. She was going to college while juggling two minimum wage jobs and two young children. After losing her mother and grandmother in the same year in the early 1970s, she wanted to be able to provide a better life for her daughters than a minimum wage job could afford. She prayed for guidance on what her next steps should be when she saw a sign that said “Aim High” and a vision of her uncle in his U.S. Air Force dress uniform. She went on to join the Air Force where she became a law enforcement specialist.
“I was so ready to go in,” she said. “I loved it. I got to go to school, had an assignment in Europe, ran track, and played basketball. It was a wonderful experience. I got a lot of training, and I actually found my ability to write.”
Kochinsky eventually moved back stateside, where she experienced medical issues and, as a result, was unable to re-enlist in the service. Not long after relocating her growing family to Houston, her two daughters were tragically hit by a truck and one child did not survive the accident — it was her 13th birthday.
Sadly, the losses she already had suffered were not the end of Kochinsky’s heartaches. She experienced several miscarriages, multiple sexual assaults, a failed marriage, and lost another child to gun violence. She turned to drugs as a way to cope with her depression and guilt.
“Anytime something happened, I saw it through and took care of it, but I didn’t handle it too well down the road. Things just seemed like they were my fault,” she said.
Kochinsky eventually sought treatment for drug abuse and started taking advantage of the services the military offered. “I wound up at the VA, and that’s how I found the creative arts.”
Through the power of prayer and creative writing, she was able to forgive herself for the many tragedies that left a dark imprint on her life. “I realized I didn’t mess up after all; nothing was my fault,” she said. “I don’t blame myself.”
Kochinsky says NVCAF has not only allowed her to heal, but has helped her to relate to other veterans. “I met ladies here who have lost their kids. I think the Lord has allowed me to experience a whole lot of stuff because I have a story to tell that can help somebody.”
“This creative thing has changed me. This [NVCAF] has fast-forwarded me so much. It’s so weird how there’s a little piece of me with every one of them — the children, the drugs, the loneliness, the going through things with your spouse. I’ve heard their stories, and I know.”
This was Kochinsky’s first NVCAF experience, where she was a Therapeutic Arts Scholarship recipient in the creative writing division for her poem “Decide To Be, Aim High.” She plans to write her second book in the near future and is happily remarried to a man she served with in Europe. Her family has grown to include five girls, three boys, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Performing artist and singer Angela Walker once lost her voice to a service-related injury, but you would never know it just by listening to her rendition of the classic song “Route 66.” Walker has always loved music, noting that she was an entertainer, actress, and songwriter before joining the military. But her real desire was to help people, so she joined the U.S. Navy to go to college and become a nurse.
However, instead of working in a hospital, Walker found herself as a patient for a significant time during her military career for misdiagnosed medical issues. She got out of the military, started teaching, and also became a foster parent.
The trauma of being in and out of a hospital for several years eventually led to her being diagnosed with PTSD. “There were a lot of sad memories,” she said.
As a result of her diagnosis, Walker had to take time off of work and go through a treatment program at her local VA. “When I was going through PTSD and I was suicidal, I had not laughed in so long. I heard a sound coming out of me, and I didn’t know it was me laughing. It was so dark in my life at that time. There was just something about this PTSD group that was so different than any other doctor appointment, or therapy session because it’s all about creative arts.”
Her music therapist at the time encouraged her to enter her local Creative Arts Festival that year — and she won. The win not only boosted her self-esteem, but also encouraged her to start singing again. That was over 20 years ago, and Walker has attended NVCAF four times since then. In 2016, she won a gold medal in the Vocal Solo Jazz/Rhythm & Blues category in the music division.
Walker has used the creative arts to heal from visible and invisible wounds, and says the arts have been a “healing balm” to help her through the dark times. As a result of a stroke a few years ago, she lost the ability to complete everyday tasks including the ability to speak clearly and walk. She also suffered memory loss. “I pretty much had lost everything. You don’t know what it’s like not being able to do your job, run your house, count your money. When you don’t know how to do those things, it’s really devastating. So, one of the things I did was say to myself, You know what? I can’t go back to work, so I’m going to volunteer.”
She decided to spend her time volunteering with other veterans at her local VA, which also helped her rehabilitate herself and stay active. “One thing I could do was sing, but I couldn’t remember the lyrics, so I had to read the lyrics and that’s why I did karaoke. I was helping myself because I had to read, sing, and talk to people. That interaction and doing the arts really helped me. For me, as well as for a lot of other veterans, the creative arts help us to heal and to feel things again.”
NVCAF provides an atmosphere that many veterans struggling with physical and mental health disabilities can’t find elsewhere. “There is a unity and a bond, and you feel like you can trust the people you’re with. You feel very comfortable,” Walker said.
When she joined the military, Walker wanted to help people as a nurse, but realized she is helping people now in ways she never could have anticipated back then. “It’s my destiny to be here. It’s very evident to me that God has allowed me to continue to sing in spite of everything else. When I went into the military, I worked on helicopters. I think that ever since I’ve come back and started working in the arts, so many doors have opened up in terms of working with my community of veterans. The response from the community is just incredible.”
The National Veterans Creative Arts Festival is a week of learning, friendship, and celebration of the healing power of the creative arts, which culminates in an art exhibit, creative writers meet-and-greet, and a live stage show. Art workshops, writing seminars, and excursions throughout the host city are also offered to participants during their week at the festival. Creative art therapy has been proven to help people improve their mental and emotional states by encouraging expression in a non-threatening way.
VA medical facilities use the creative arts as an effective form of rehabilitative therapy to help veterans recover from and cope with physical and emotional disabilities.
Because of the therapeutic benefits the creative arts provide to veterans, the ALA has remained committed to being a co-presenting sponsor with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs since 2000.
ALA members across the country donate $25 million in volunteer hours annually to the festival each year. ALA members assist veterans with art projects, fund travel, support publicity, help with stage productions, and much more throughout the year.
“The ALA has greatly enhanced the quality of the event and the experience for the veterans,” said Elizabeth Mackey, Auxiliary member and director of NVCAF. “Through funding and in-kind donations that support technical areas of the stage show as well as hospitality, public relations, and volunteer positions, the ALA is vital to the ongoing success of the festival.”
Veterans enrolled at a VA medical facility are eligible to compete in their local Veterans Creative Arts Festivals, which may qualify them to exhibit at the national level. Through a selection process, first, second, and third place winners in each category are determined. The first place winners then are invited to attend the national festival, where there is no competition, but a showcase of the veterans’ incredible talent. The national competition includes 51 categories in the visual arts division, 81 categories in the performing arts, and 15 in creative writing. For the 2016 competition, more than 2,300 veterans submitted artwork from 126 participating VA medical facilities, and 120 were selected as gold medal winners to attend NVCAF.
“This is one way to help veterans throughout the entire country showcase their talent. It gives them something to be proud of, with some going on to earn a living from their art,” said Jane Benzel, ALA national Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Committee Northwestern Division chairman. “Without the ALA’s support, both financially and with volunteers, it may not be able to continue. It is a phenomenal program.”
To learn more about the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, visit www.ALAforVeterans.org/NVCAF.
To see local news coverage from Jackson, Miss., visit http://bit.ly/NVCAFNews1 and http://bit.ly/NVCAFNews2.
To apply for a Veterans Creative Arts Festival Grant for your unit or department, visit www.ALAFoundation.org/grants.