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Looking Back and Moving Forward—Supporting Our Veterans Through the Arts

Updated: May 15, 2021

November is Veterans Month, a time to celebrate, honor, and reflect on the contributions of the men and women who have served our country in peacetime and in conflict. Earlier this month, I made my way to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for their 14th Annual Healing Arts Exhibit and Symposium, where I was met by the champion of this effort, Captain Moira G. McGuire, and had an opportunity to explore the art on display.

My job there was to give the opening speech about the long history of connection between the arts and the military going all the way back to the days of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, but being surrounded by the incredible artwork produced by the wounded, ill, and injured members of the armed services and their families was the real benefit of being there. I was struck not only by the vibrant expression and beauty of the art itself, but how each piece, unique to the individual, was also testimony to recovery and resiliency in the face of the challenges our service members and their families encounter every day.

This visit made me think back to an event hosted by Walter Reed in 2011, the National Summit: Arts and Healing for Wounded Warriors. Colleagues from different sectors discussed whether the arts and creative arts therapies have a strong role to play in mitigating the greatest challenges the military was facing at that time: aiding in the recovery and reintegration of severely injured service members returning from combat. At the end of the day, the consensus of the more than 250 military and civilian leaders was a strong YES. Our charge was to figure out how.

We had examples right in front of us of what seemed to be working—creative arts therapy being employed in military medical centers and at VA facilities to treat signature wounds of war; non-profit arts groups working in the community to support military kids in coping with a parent’s multiple deployments; veterans returning from combat using the arts not only in recovery, but in reintegration in community and the creative workforce.

The evidence and examples of how the arts are helping veterans heal and thrive keeps growing. We see more and more examples of how through their art veterans are contributing to the artistic and cultural legacy of this country, shaping our understanding of what still needs to be accomplished. But what paints a hopeful picture of support is the actions of key federal agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense, and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), supported by a growing network of not-for-profit arts and cultural groups, veterans service organizations, and a legion of empowered veteran artist-advocates.

The NEA’s signature program, Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Partnership, is well on its way to establishing its expanded presence at 11 military bases and one VA, with a plan to increase connections with the local arts community. In September and October, Creative Forces summits took place in Tacoma, Washington and in Tampa, Florida, with participants from Joint Base Lewis-McChord and the James M. Haley Veterans Medical Center respectively, as well as local arts partners. The dialogue and relationships generated are part of building out strong community connections for service members and veterans traveling on the pathway from clinical treatment to well-being. Americans for the Arts is proud to be helping with this work.

The role of creative arts therapy recently received a high-profile White House endorsement with the October 17 launch of Second Lady Karen Pence’s Healing with the HeART initiative. Recognizing that art therapy is a mental health profession and a viable option in the treatment of various conditions, illnesses and life experiences, Mrs. Pence is also a strong advocate on behalf of military service members and their families. She is visiting numerous military bases across the country, talking with service members and art therapists to help raise awareness of the value of this treatment. The US Army website features her visit to Hawaii’s Schofield Barracks Health Clinic.

VA facilities across the country are incorporating creative arts into their therapy programs. Another important event, the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, is an opportunity to celebrate the progress, recovery, and creative achievements of our nation's Veterans. For Air Force Veteran Sanjanette Scott, the pathway to healing led from the Orlando VA—where she underwent multiple surgeries and an eventual amputation above her left knee—to the stage at the Center for the Arts at the University of Buffalo, where she gave a gold-medal winning vocal performance. More than 140 Veterans from 56 VA facilities nationwide were in attendance in Buffalo. These gold-medal winners were part of the national competition of nearly 3,500 Veterans who submitted 5,380 entries in the categories of art, creative writing, dance, drama, and music during the local-level competition phase last winter.

A growing number of Veterans are returning from service and entering the creative industry workforce. Marine Veteran Adam Driver’s career spans television, Broadway, and Hollywood—he is set to reprise his high-profile role as the villain in December’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” At the same time, his own passion project, the non-profit arts organization Arts in the Armed Forces (AITAF) is creating new opportunities for more veterans to realize their creative potential. Founded 10 years ago by Driver and his partner Joanne Tucker, AITAF has been bringing free, high-quality theater programming for active-duty service members, veterans, military support staff, and their families for all branches of the military at U.S. installations domestically and around the world.

Driver recently announced The Bridge Award to recognize an emerging playwright of exceptional talent within the US military, which includes a $10,000 prize and an AITAF-produced reading of the winning work with a professional director and cast. Like many Veterans, Driver’s commitment to service did not end when he retired from the military.

The arts are bridging the military/civilian divide, helping to heal the many wounds of war, and bringing solace and joy to the millions of military service members, veterans, and their families in every corner of the country. As we celebrate Veterans Month, I encourage everyone to visit the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military website for upcoming events, latest reports, and news about what is happening across the country. Check the National Network Directory for what is happening in your state and community—and sign up to have your programs for veterans included. We owe it to our veterans and their families to support events and organizations that are stepping up and serving their needs.

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