Veterans with PTSD find solace in art, music and poetry
It is a festive and patriotic gathering of veterans who come together to sing, share their art and poetry, and tell jokes.
For the men and women who attend this "expressive arts session" every Friday morning at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago, it is also an important part of their therapy.
They are young and old, and battled different foes in different regions of the world in conflicts spanning seven decades. United by their experience as combat veterans, they assemble to help each other overcome another common enemy: post-traumatic stress disorder.
"PTSD can be insidious and defy short-term fixes," said Dr. John Bair, a clinical psychologist who directs outpatient programs at Lovell designed to treat PTSD — a condition that can afflict soldiers who experience intense trauma such as captivity, torture and combat.
Bair, who has been treating PTSD for 35 years, says that when events like these happen to some people — not all, because everyone's brain is different — their neural pathways are altered.
"Chemicals flood the brain to shut down emotions, causing a person to either run away or fight," Bair said. "The problem is, they never come down from this state of hyper-vigilance."
PTSD symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, mood swings and depression. Complex chemical interactions that occur in the brain from trauma make it challenging to treat with medications.
"Fostering creativity and allowing for self expression through art, music and writing keeps the brain busy in a positive way," Bair said.
The veterans treated for PTSD at Lovell, as in- and outpatients and through a variety of programs, come from all service branches, conflicts and walks of life.
Vietnam veteran Lonnie Givens, 63, of Gurnee helped Bair start the expressive arts session 10 years ago.
"Some people said it wouldn't work," Givens said. "But it has changed lives."
He cites veterans who came to the sessions withdrawn and disturbed and now are blossoming as writers, musicians and artists, as well as graduating from college and getting jobs.
At one Friday session, consisting of about 50 veterans and their spouses, Bair asks if anyone is attending for the first time.
One veteran responds that he was a medic in Operation Desert Storm during the early 1990s. Another recently returned from three tours in Iraq in Naval Special Operations.
"Ten days after I was transferred from the barracks to another location, suicide bombers blew them up," former Marine Randy Lund, 50 of Waukegan said of the 1983 attack in Beirut that killed 241 American troops, including many of his friends.
The group applauds them for their courage to step forward.
Ceremony and rituals honoring veterans are also an important part of therapy. Each session begins with the Pledge of Allegiance and ends with everyone joining hands singing "I'm Proud to be an American," led by singer-songwriter and Vietnam veteran Joe Klass, 60, of Kenosha playing his guitar.
Brightly colored service banners adorn the walls — 1st Cavalry Division, Airborne, Seabees. Some veterans wear service caps — Korea, USS Princeton — others their Purple Hearts. Some have breathing tubes and move about in electric scooters.
In the room is a small stage. Behind that is a display with military equipment from various eras — a desert-war era helmet perched on an M-4 rifle; jungle warfare boots and knapsacks from Vietnam. There is an honor bell on the wall, and next to it is a plaque listing the names — about 70 — of "fallen heroes" in the unit who died from PTSD.
"Who has art, poems and music to share?" Bair calls out. Jennifer Tario, 32, walks to the stage. She travels regularly from McHenry to sing and read her poetry, which is inspired by her experiences as a boatswain's mate in the Navy — at sea three years in demanding jobs onboard a submarine tender and aircraft carrier supporting the war in Afghanistan — and dealing with a related condition called Military Sexual Trauma.
Some poems are sublime and tender, finding solace in the rhythms of the sea amid life in a treacherous world. Her poem "Boats" describes her drive to earn the respect of male shipmates:
"If I cut myself I would not cry, just carry on and bleed
Jet fuel soaking in my wounds, I still stood
And took the lead."
Others are jarring, revealing ongoing battles within herself — one person "split in two" by PTSD.
A verse in her poem "Angel Wings" tells of a troubled friend and shipmate who was placed on suicide watch and jumped overboard "into a blender made in hell."
But hope is also a common theme:
"Live with me, my friends let's move forward
Let's be strong we know the place where we
Next comes music. James Cannon, 54, delivers an emotional song about being drafted and going to war at age 18: "Greetings, this is Uncle Sam," he sings with his eyes closed and hands drawn to his chest. "I want to take you to a foreign land."
The former Marine who drives from his home on Chicago's far South Side to attend the sessions, plays guitar and sings a heartfelt version of Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven."
Bernard Bossov, 82, of Wilmette slowly makes his way to the piano using a walker and wearing a neck brace. Hunched over and in pain from injuries sustained in the Korean War as a forward observer in the artillery, the former piano teacher plays a beautiful rendition of "With a Song in My Heart."
His hands are bruised from the trashing they get when he flails about in bed — still tormented by nightmares of atrocities he saw in the war more than 60 years ago.
"Get up there, George!" come calls from the crowd. 101st Airborne and Vietnam veteran George Denton, 63, of Waukegan, wearing sunglasses and flashing a broad grin, sits at the keyboard and picks up the beat with his own mixture of finger-snapping jazz.
During the tragic and controversial 1969 Battle of Hamburger Hill, 23 fellow soldiers were killed when his artillery battery was overrun.
Tapping his feet is Joseph Geraldi, 87, of Waukegan, who flew 35 missions over Germany as a ball-turret gunner in a B-17 during World War II. After a fierce battle against fighter planes that nearly destroyed his plane, he aided the radio operator whose stomach was ripped open by a 20 mm cannon shell and later died.
Afterward, Richard Beauvais, 64, a former Army UH-1 crew chief whose helicopter was shot down in Vietnam, shows the colorful landscape painting he created on his easel during the session. He hands it to a newly attending veteran as a gift.
"We are family here," says the Waukegan resident. The young man beams with gratitude. Later, Beauvais explains how creating and sharing his art with veterans is his passion and a source of healing.
In the audience are several veterans with service dogs. One is a tail-wagging black Labrador who stays close to his master, an Army sniper who fought in Afghanistan.
"Service dogs are very therapeutic because they force a person to focus on something other than their own self," Bair said.
With all of its camaraderie, the expressive arts session at Lovell is a poignant reminder that war is measured not only by its cost in blood and treasure, but also by the toll it takes on mind and spirit.
"Fighting PTSD might be the toughest battle of all," says Bossov, who credits years of therapy at Lovell with helping him cope. "You don't have to face it alone. But the only medal you get for courage is the one you give yourself."
• Find out how you can help veterans coping with PTSD by calling the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center at (224) 610-3714 from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and visiting www.lovell.fhcc.va.gov/giving.
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