How the Arts Change the Lives of America’s Wounded Warriors
On any given day in America, between one and 20 veterans commit suicide. However, arts experiences help military personnel and their families amid the psychological and physical consequences of time at war.
This grim statistic from research by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs stands in stark contrast to the fact that more combat soldiers survive tours to return home than ever before in American history. However, many of these women and men come back with grievous injuries to body and mind, with one in three affected by post-traumatic stress (PTS), traumatic brain injury (TBI) or both. Combat soldiers, non-combat personnel and their families also suffer with depression, the third most common health issue among the military community.
Compound those invisible injuries with loss of limbs and eyes from improvised explosive devices, high rates of military sexual trauma to both women and men and families reeling from the emotional turmoil of a parent, spouse or child deployed or injured in the line of duty, and civilians can see the price our people in uniform are paying for the cost of war.
For the first time in relatively recent history, civilians and non-military organizations have expressed a growing willingness to put their empathy into action and give back to the people who serve.
But what can be done? In the spring of 2010, when waves of veterans were returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, a small group of military brass met with arts and health leaders to ask the same question. For years, Veterans Affairs doctors and psychologists documented that of the veterans who opted for treatment, traditional talk therapy or behavioral methods were not as successful as they hoped. The stigma of seeking help, especially in the transition to civilian life, remains embedded in the warrior’s code, so many try to go it alone or rely on friends and family. New approaches were needed.
It was time to look more closely at the health benefits of the arts.
After all, the American military shares a long history with the arts as part of its identity. Drum corps rapped out tactical instructions to soldiers across smoky, chaotic battlefields during the Revolution and Civil War. Even Benjamin Franklin commanded a military band. Drawing and poetry appear in military academy curriculum, centuries of fine art grace the Pentagon, and one of the lasting impressions of WWII lives in the iconography of pilots painting their fighter planes with animals, women and fearsome faces to create an identity between themselves, their mission and their machine.
Perhaps the most unbelievable connection of arts and the military resides in the story of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, “The Ghost Army,” a WWII Army covert force of writers, artists, painters, sound engineers, ad agency men and other performing arts professionals that created illusions in the form of inflatable tanks, spoof radio and pretend convoys to spread confusion and disinformation to the Axis powers.
The military’s use of the arts for medicinal purposes also stretches back in history, with Florence Nightingale interviewed on the restorative value of music in an 1891 paper, “Music in Illness,” published in the medical journal Lancet. The military’s formal studies on the effects of music on convalescing veterans helped lay the foundation for the establishment of music therapy as a professional treatment.
A groundbreaking achievement arrived in 2011, after the successful collaboration between military and arts-health leaders in 2010 to address a more prominent, more committed, more elevated and more conscientious application of creative arts to healing across the military spectrum. The first National Summit: Arts in Healing for Warriors took place at Walter Reed Bethesda, the “President’s hospital,” and the largest military medical center in the country. This summit led to Americans for the Arts launching the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military (NIAHM) in 2012, with its first roundtable held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
The subsequent white paper, “Arts, Health and Well-Being across the Military Continuum,” published by NIAHM, plainly states “one of the most powerful tools we have in our arsenal – the arts – is often under-utilized and not well understood within the military and the healthcare system.” The paper also cites a study indicating that “providing service members and veterans with opportunities to express themselves and share their stories can help them cope with the most common symptoms of today’s conflicts: PTS, TBI and major depression.”
Today, Walter Reed hosts monthly performances, bedside concerts and creative art therapies for veterans and their families. The hospital continues to conduct research on the effects of arts therapies and engagement with the arts. Their Healing Arts Program “integrates art into the patient’s care, providing new tools in artistic and creative modalities,” writes Walter Reed Commander Rear Admiral Alton L. Stocks. He notes these methods alleviate anxiety and trouble focusing, as well as “provide a nonverbal outlet to help service members express themselves and process traumatic experiences.” The old ways of relying on drugs and toughing-it-out are giving way to the healing powers of the arts. In military parlance, the idea is known as “express yourself versus suppress yourself.”
Artists and civilians are stepping into this new world of arts health for veterans – not as therapists (that role is carefully and strictly held for certified health professionals) – but as facilitators and allies in bringing a greater arts influence into the lives of people who need to process trauma, heal relationships and navigate the transition from war to civilian life. “We have seen first-hand the success and value of creative arts programs and will continue to expand our arts programs through partnerships with artists and arts organizations,” writes Stocks.
The arts also side-step the stigma of seeking help because they allow for expression without directly confronting feelings, trauma or another person. Research shows music therapy works where traditional therapies do not and improves depression and anxiety for TBI. Dancing helps with balance and coordination more than muscular training programs, and dance therapy improves emotional responses, possibly helping to stabilize the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system. Engagement in the arts, because they are pleasurable activities, releases dopamine, the feel-good chemical, and further studies indicate engaging in the arts also lowers risks of heart disease and cancer.
In essence, the performing arts don’t just supplement medicine. The performing arts are medicine, helping our women and men of the armed forces and their families find their way back to themselves once they return home.
In 2017, the arts and health in the military National Summit on Policy and Practice happens in Tampa. With 1.5 million vets and counting, Florida has one of the highest concentrations of veterans, second only to Texas. Already, we have a growing number of artists and arts organizations partnering with veterans to bring the power of the performing arts to PTS, TBI, depression and reintegration. Arts2Action, a Tampa nonprofit, hosts a veterans’ open mic at Sacred Grounds coffeehouse on the first Sunday of each month and holds a weekly performance workshop at the Tampa Veterans Recovery Center. Board-certified music and dance therapists work with regional VA hospitals, and artist-in-residence programs bring performing arts experiences to veterans and their families.
If you would like to get involved or learn more about how the performing arts help veterans, you can visit the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military on the Americans for the Arts website.