Masks, decorated by service members, sit on display as part of the Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, Md., Oct. 21, 2016. National Endowment for the Arts courtesy photo
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NEA, DoD Launch Creative Forces Sites Expansion to Increase Art Therapies
By Amaani Lyle
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WALTER REED NATIONAL MILITARY MEDICAL CENTER, Md., Oct. 31, 2016 — At the National Intrepid Center of Excellence here, officials on Oct. 25 announced an expansion between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Defense Department to bring creative arts therapies to service members, veterans and their families.
The initiative, Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, deepens connections between the military and civilian communities through patient-centered care at 10 additional clinical sites beyond Walter Reed in Bethesda and NICoE Intrepid Spirit 1, Fort Belvoir, Va., and broadens access to therapeutic arts activities in local communities, even in remote locations.
“We’re seeing such transformational results in our service members and our expansion plans have come as a result of them saying that they want this program to be closer to their communities as they make a transition back into civilian life,” said Jane Chu, NEA chairperson. “This is a way to help service members and veterans … understand the dignity that they already have and so much deserve.”
Expanding Funding, Time
Chu said since the program’s nascence in 2011, the program has continued to proliferate and gained the recognition of President Barack Obama and Congress, who in fiscal year 2016 appropriated a $1.98 million budget increase to the NEA, specifically allocated to expand the healing arts program.
With this budget increase, the NEA and DoD can support creative arts therapies for a total of 12 sites across the nation by 2017. Five additional locations have already committed to joining the network: Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, Calif., Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, Jacksonville, N.C.; Madigan Army Medical Center, Tacoma, Washington; Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Anchorage, Alaska; and Fort Hood, Killeen, Texas.
“Instead of conducting one- or two-day workshops, we knew that the impact could be deeper and more meaningful if service members could engage with the arts over a longer period of time,” Chu explained. “Post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury are notoriously complex conditions to treat.”
As such, the NICoE Walter Reed clinicians developed a therapeutic writing program, which functioned in tandem with the NICoE’s creative arts therapies program and now includes visual arts and music therapy. And many service members who participated in these programs acknowledge improvements, Chu said.
“Because they get to create through this arts program, they can now manage their stress, their memory is more enhanced; they can communicate more clearly and they can manage their physical pain better,” Chu said. “We believe that the arts have allowed them to tap into the meaning and the value of their own lives, which were always there but may have been buried during times of combat.”
Families, Caregivers Also Benefit
Similarly, Chu said family members and caregivers noticed significant and positive changes in their loved ones. “One hundred percent of the caregivers at the Fort Belvoir program said they experienced positive results in the service members who participated in the creative arts therapies program.”
She noted that one spouse whose husband received treatment at Walter Reed reported arts therapies healed family disruption.
Chu also cited a service member who wrote, “Previously, I had been unwilling or unable to explain how tortured I felt … art therapy provided the outlet which directly impacted one of the most important course changes of my life.”
Ron Capps, a combat veteran and volunteer creative writing instructor for the Creative Forces program, illustrated the success of creative writing therapy. “It’s as if you have this traumatic memory, and it’s hot or radioactive,” he said. “You pick it up with your bare hand, your bare brain so to speak — you can’t manage it … but by putting art or music or writing in between, you have a filter. It’s like putting on a pair of gloves.”
Warrior Turned Artist
Rusty Noesner, said he can fully attest to “wearing the gloves” and leveraging the power of transformational change. During his time serving with Navy Seal Team 10 in Kandahar, Afghanistan, from 2010-2011, he suffered traumatic brain injury among other others following rocket fire that injured two of his friends and killed a U.S. soldier. In addition to visible scars, he returned home with anxiety, depression, and cognitive limitations.
He admitted going to NICoE with initial reluctance and a discomfort with the unknown.
“I didn’t want to be here and I didn’t want to involve myself in any of this,” Noesner recounted. “I soon learned I was completely wrong to think that, as the staff and everybody here was so professional, kind, courteous and receptive to what I was going through and what other veterans are going through.”
But eventually, he gravitated to the arts, turning to painting, fittingly, of masks, which he said brought him and other veterans a certain freedom in embracing recurring combat themes such as pain and duality. He’s since launched his own nonprofit group, War Paints, to promote art for veterans.
“You learn how to begin the process of redefining yourself,” Noesner said. “It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s about acknowledging what’s going on in your own brain then moving forward and it’s a way for you to express what’s going on mentally without having said anything at all.”
And whether one brush stroke or one sentence at a time, Noesner said he was able to allow the cathartic response to resonate as he enjoyed the tangible outcome of his work. “Throughout that creative process, it’s not always easy — that self-discovery is essential in healing,” he said.
Site Selection Criteria
According to Chu, NEA officials considered five criteria when selecting the clinical locations: readiness, diversity, location, population density and leadership. The expansion sites, she added, will complement existing clinical services for traumatic brain injury and psychological health conditions.
“In each of the locations, the leadership believes in the healing power of the arts and is committed to including the arts in their integrative care approach,” Chu said. “This is critical to the success of our work together and we applaud the leadership at each of these sites for their vision and unceasing quest to better serve our service members.”
The expansion includes a network of community based nonprofit organizations that provide healing arts programs for members of the military, veterans and their families, Chu noted.
“This part of the expansion will support the reintegration for people leaving a medical center by allowing them to continue arts programming, and it will address individuals who need treatment but fear the possible stigma of receiving ongoing clinical care,” she said.
Ultimately, NEA will build capacity by developing a portal of resources and tools that will help communities and arts organizations improve the dialog among service members, veterans and their families, Chu said.
“It’s a privilege to be part of a program that benefits the brave men and women who so proudly serve the United States of America,” she said.
(Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @LyleDoDNews)