We Know the Mission

Straz Salutes is an organizational mission to make sure our military and veteran communities know they have a place at The Straz. We provide tickets, outreach programs and presentations for military, veterans and their families.

We’ve always had a soft spot for military, veterans and their families, which is why we’ve offered discounted tickets for our armed forces guests for years. Since 9/11, the country as a whole has seen more wounded warriors return home with visible and invisible injuries sustained in the line of duty. Since we regard our military with the utmost respect, we, like most civilian organizations, needed some first-hand guidance about how to say, ‘hey, we’re here for you in more ways than just tickets’ and still honor the warrior’s code of stoicism regarding pain.

We know people in the military and their families have chosen a tough path. It is our earnest desire to demonstrate that the performing arts can allow safe passage back to self and home.

We call our initiative in this endeavor Straz Salutes.

Cast of Diavolo’s The Veterans Project in rehearsal at The Straz.

As more research and media emerged explaining the positive effects of the arts for PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI), we realized we had a duty to implement greater efforts to build stronger ties to our military community. Simultaneously, we explored national movements in arts and healing as well as worked with a creative arts therapy network for PTSD and TBI, Creative Forces, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs.

Soon after, the Straz Center community engagement department began direct efforts to initiate visual art, performance collaborations and community conversations with our military community. The Straz received a grant from Creative Forces to launch the VetArtSpan project with the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital for the 2018-2019 fiscal year. The project, spearheaded by our community engagement specialist Fred Johnson, resulted in the VetArtSpan website that includes podcasts, a visual art gallery, helpful information for civilians. The VetArtSpan project culminated in a live performance of veteran artists at The Straz on Aug. 30 this year.

Local veterans and dancers work together to create a meaningful and memorable performance with Diavolo.

These efforts—discounted tickets, our education from national organizations, direct community involvement as well as military-themed programming—converged into a united push to bridge any gaps between us, our military and their families. The different prongs needed unification under one initiative: thus, our over-arching program, Straz Salutes, was born.

The sum of our efforts to reach, meet and support the whole scope of the military community, Straz Salutes appears on the 2019-2020 season in many forms. Our Straz Salutes logo denotes specific performances relating to or of particular interest to our military community, including the United States Air Force Concert Band on Oct. 26 and longtime veteran advocate and country music star Aaron Tippin on Oct. 22. Our ongoing community engagement efforts resulted in some spectacular collaborations, most notably the Diavolo Veterans Project and the Medal of Honor visual art exhibit.

Veterans and dancers from the Tampa Bay area participated in a few weeks of intense dance training with Diavolo earlier this year.

Diavolo, a performance art group based in Los Angeles, made an open call for local dancers and veterans in the Tampa Bay area to participate in a two-week intensive to create a dance to be performed in Diavolo’s Oct. 25 show in Morsani Hall. The piece, A Long Journey Home, held to a demanding 5-hour-a-day, six-days-a-week schedule, and is slated to be the centerpiece of their eye-popping Straz Center program.

At the beginning of October, we unveiled our newest exhibit on the Riverwalk which features the visual art of students from the tri-county area who participated with us as part of the Medal of Honor convention being held in Tampa this year. The kids were given a virtue of the Medal of Honor—”the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force”—to depict upon a coin. The top seven artworks were reproduced physically and now hang upon the panels of the Riverwalk gallery to coincide with the Medal of Honor convention Oct. 22-26. The community engagement department also sent Fred Johnson, himself a veteran and artist who is heavily involved in the Diavolo project as well, to MacDill Youth Center to teach bucket drumming for the children living on MacDill Air Force Base.

Diavolo’s The Veterans Project aims to exemplify strength and emotion through it’s unique dance techniques.

Alice Santana, acting director for the community engagement and education programs, envisions growing more community partnerships through Straz Salutes, formally and informally. “Our job is to accomplish the goal of making sure our military and veteran community feels 100% welcomed here. Straz Salutes is also about equity. If we have something going on in these walls that can help these families get their minds off the past, current deployments or the strains of military life, we want them to have access to our performances, our programs, our campus. We are approachable, we’re open to suggestions and we are continually looking for input from active military and veterans on what we can do better,” she says.

Don’t miss our Straz Salutes performances and events this Oct. For tickets and more information, visit strazcenter.org

Let’s Do Something Amazing

Take the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, The James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital and the Straz Center, add an epic effort in community engagement, and you get VetArtSpan. The year-long collaboration culminates this Friday in a free performance event in the TECO Theater featuring veterans, civilians and community leaders.

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When military hospitals began integrating creative arts therapies into treatment for veterans with traumatic brain injuries and psychological health conditions, the success caused a double take in the medical establishment. Arts therapies worked, often when traditional talk or drug therapy plateaued.

The National Endowment for the Arts created a nationwide initiative for veteran healing called Creative Forces®: NEA Military Arts Healing Network. In partnership with the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs as well as local and state agencies, Creative Forces allowed different stakeholders in the veteran community to come together to implement simple, beneficial strategies to connect vets, their families, arts and the civilian community.

During a Creative Forces forum a few years ago, Straz Center president Judy Lisi and community engagement specialist/artist-in-residence Fred Johnson were inspired to birth the idea of VetArtSpan, a year-long program between The Straz and the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.

Local veterans performing at The Straz in May. Marquis Diaz (top) and Becky Heissler (right) will perform again at the VetArtSpan Showcase on Aug. 30.

VetArtSpan, launched Nov. 15, 2018, is part of Community Connections, the NEA’s second phase of their Creative Forces program. The basic idea of VetArtSpan was to provide a creative bridge to healing, hence the “span” in “artspan.” VetArtSpan’s scope included creating a military cultural education curriculum, participating in the design of arts engagement programs, contributing to increased arts access and expanding arts providers’ understanding of Tampa Bay’s vast military and veteran populations.

In practical terms, the VetArtSpan project launched a website, hosted a series of podcasts on veteran experiences called Stories from the Field, curated interactive online galleries that linked to other creative resources for veterans. VetArtSpan also published stories surrounding veteran creativity and military experiences. The project hosted three veteran-civilian dialogues, closed-space guided conversations, to open doors of understanding between two segments of the population that often struggle with how to talk to each other about the military experience.

This Friday, Aug. 30, participants and collaborators in VetArtSpan appear in a free performance event in the TECO Theater at the Straz Center to showcase the depth and breadth of this multi-part, multi-disciplinary project. The program includes U.S. Air Force veterans Marvin and Melvin Coleman with spoken word, the Veteran Civilian Dance Ensemble performing their work, I am We, Together as One drummers, and two panel discussions—one concerning veterans and the impact of the arts and the other discussing the bridges built between veterans and civilians through the VetArtSpan project.

This celebration is open to the public, free of charge. We hope to see you there.

Collaborating with the Straz Center on the VetArtSpan project are the Florida Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs, University of South Florida School of Dance, the Morean Arts Center, The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art, the Brain Science Institute of Johns Hopkins University, the ArtThread Foundation and the Military Resilience Foundation

The Straz Center thanks the National Endowment for the Arts’ Creative Forces initiative for their generous $50,000 grant to develop the VetArtSpan Project.

 

Bravo Company

How the Arts Change the Lives of America’s Wounded Warriors

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“Man of the World” by Tampa area veteran and visual artist Derrick “Ricky” Mayer. His artwork appears throughout this article.

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.

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Artwork by Derrick “Ricky” Mayer.

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.

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Artwork by Derrick “Ricky” Mayer.

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.

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Artwork by Derrick “Ricky” Mayer.

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.”

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Artwork by Derrick “Ricky” Mayer.

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.

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Mayer served in the Marines from 1988-1992, spending January-September 1991 in Operation Desert Storm. He is pictured with his copy of our INSIDE Magazine, featuring his artwork on the cover.

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.