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Veterans Find Healing in the Arts
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Artist Willie Weaver-Bey with his gold medal painting
Ezra Wall

This Veterans Day, Americans will join together to honor the sacrifices made by those who have served in our armed forces. But according to theWounded Warrior Project, around 400,000 American service veterans are reminded of that sacrifice every day as they struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. The road to recovery can be long and hard. But as MPB's Ezra Wall reports, many are making progress through the healing power of the arts.

The sounds of the musical, Rent, fill Thalia Mara Hall in downtown Jackson. Like the subjects of the play, today's performers are artists who rely on each other - and on the very artistic experience - to overcome difficulties in their lives. They're performing the song from the popular 90's musical as part of the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, which came to Mississippi for the first time in October. Liz Mackey is the Festival director.

"A lot of disabilities and challenges are not necessarily seen. So we have a lot of veterans who use the arts to express their experiences in the military; a traumatic experience, a combat-related experience," says Mackey. "And through art, they're able to create something, whether it's a song, a poem, a story, or an art piece that reflects what they've experienced and how they're doing now at handling it." 

Veterans from all over the country are here for the Creative Arts Festival. They're each already winners, having won gold medals in regional competitions at VA's across the nation. Another thing each singer, painter, writer, dancer and sculptor shares in common is their participation in their local VA's arts therapy program.  

Jack Wimmer of Richmond, Minnesota served in the Army during Vietnam. The wood mosaic artist says many vets from his era buried their invisible mental wounds in the everyday activities of work and family.

"When I got back, you know - [Vietnam] was not a popular war - I just took off my uniform and got on with my life. It was not until after I retired, I wasn't keeping my mind busy," says Wimmer. "You sit around, you start thinking of things. My wife finally had me go to the VA and they did a wonderful job. But you can't just rely on the VA; you have to help yourself, I guess."

Another Vietnam veteran, Willie Weaver-Bey, faced a different fate. After Vietnam, he found himself on the wrong side of the law.

"I'm totally self-taught; I started painting in 1992," says Weaver-Bey. "I was incarcerated at the time. I did over 26 years in the federal prison system and this is where I learned how to paint."

After prison, Weaver-Bey lived in his van on the streets of Milwaukee. Through his local VA, he used his painting to help see his life in a different light.

"Suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and not realizing I had it for years and years, uh, the art is what saved me, basically saved my life," says Weaver-Bey. "That's where I find my solace when I have issues or problems that are hard to deal with, I resort to painting."

Liz Mackey was a music therapist with the VA before becoming director of the Creative Arts Festival in 1995. She says arts therapy can help veterans find creative ways to work through their experiences.

"It could be something related to, again, a combat experience they've endured, witnessing something terrible on the battlefield, then coming back and having repercussions like nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, depression. It's a very difficult place to be, as we call can understand," says Mackey.

John Ortiz works at the VA in Kerville, Texas. He's an assistant in the recreational therapy program there.

"We got a drum circle that we started, I started a karaoke group, so getting some guys singing that haven't been even talking," says Ortiz. "But now, you know, to watch someone that is non-verbal in the majority of his day, doesn't really speak. To watch him come to my karaoke group and open up and sing an entire song."

Ortiz says he found arts therapy through his own post-military struggles.

"It's not as bad as some guys have it; I just got tired of working, of being an adult, I guess. So I just sort of quit, moved in my car for a little while in Vegas," says Ortiz. "The music therapy really got me going again."

No matter what difficulties veterans may face after their time in the service ends, everyone here agrees on the first step. John Ortiz.

"Getting involved really helps because it gives you an outlet for those thoughts and expressions," Ortiz says. "And not just an outlet, but a safe outlet, because you're not going to be judged by your fellow veterans or the therapists. It makes a big difference."

Festival director Liz Mackey says getting involved starts with reaching out to a local VA, or online.

The National Veterans Creative Arts Festival is co-produced by the US Department of Veterans Affairs and the American Legion Auxilliary

***Web Extras***

Jack Wimmer

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Vietnam veteran Jack Wimmer talks with MPB's Ezra Wall about how he became interested in woodworking, and offers details about the composition of the piece pictured above:

Willie Weaver-Bey

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Self-taught painter and veteran, Willie Weaver-Bey, talks about his experiences, how he learned to paint, and about his winning work, A Veteran, Not Homeless.

William Hald

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In the following interview, artist William Hald describes his work, including an in-depth discussion of the bronzing process. During the discussion, Hald is flipping through a book he has made outlining the process. 

 

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