Homeland Craft: Combat Veterans Turn to Craft Therapy
As the spouse of a veteran suffering from post-traumatic disorder, I have seen and experienced the residual effects that war does to an individual. As veterans return home from their service, they often find it hard to cope with their involvement in the war overseas. From the sleepless nights, to the unforeseen panic attacks and suicide attempts, it takes a tremendous toll on the individual. What I have observed from my own experience with regards to my spouse’s rehabilitation and therapy is that being involved in a craft or some kind of artistic activity has been paramount in his recovery. It has been a way for him to cope with the atrocities he has experienced being in conflict and has also given him an outlet for self-expression. With the Veterans Administration’s never-ending prescription of pharmaceuticals and the current veteran suicide rate at twenty-two a day, the Veterans Administration should make craft mandatory in their therapeutic regimen. For veterans with war-related trauma, craft can be a means of expression, develop new sensory experiences, aid in cognitive/sensory developments, ease symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and create a sense of social connectedness.
In 1918, during World War I, The Khaki Cloth was embroidered by war soldiers. This rarely-seen altar cloth was made by the Bradford Khaki Handicrafts Club in Bradford, United Kingdom. The club was established as a form of occupational therapy and employment for soldiers returning from the First World War. The Khaki Cloth, a cross-stitched frontlet, was used at services in Abram Peel War Hospital. At the club, veterans learned arts and crafts like painting and basket weaving. If they were physically able, they learned woodworking and welding. For those injured in combat, “lap crafts,” work that could be done while seated, were particularly useful. “Embroidery, cross-stitching and other needlework incorporated the convenience of a lap craft with the development of fine motor skills and coordination.” Crafts such as these aid in physical therapy and are often a welcomed distraction from post-traumatic stress disorder and other related illnesses. These activities don’t require the use of heavy machinery or tools, or even a workbench. The war wounded can work while being immobile. This form of therapy is successful in that it provides an alternative mode of coping for those suffering from such ailments.
It is evident that the relationship between craft and the military are not mutually exclusive. Following World War I, major cuts to the Army left the United States with a small force. As a result, the War Department faced a great deal of complications in preparation for the Second World War. One of those challenges was soldier morale. Providing recreational activities for those off-duty was extremely important. Subsequently, the Army Arts and Crafts Program was created. The program’s mission is “to fulfill the natural human desire to create, provide opportunities for self-expression, serve old skills and develop new ones, and assist the entire recreation program through construction work, publicity, and decoration.” By providing activities and outlets that keep soldier morale high, it allows for individual expression and enables those to manage and carry on with the expectations that the military imposes on an individual. Furthermore, in the technical manual, Craft Techniques in Occupational Therapy written by the US Army, it states:
“The object of the craftsman is to create some useful or decorative piece out of commonplace materials. He finds his greatest pleasure in the exercise of creativity. The primary purpose of occupational therapy is therapeutic; however, the material and crafts suggested here should also enrich the individual’s life. The procedure given have been carefully studied and the patient should be warned that the haphazard departure from these procedures may result in a loss of quality. Products, however, should not be measured by monetary values but by what the creating has meant to the patient. Once a patient has achieved his goal, he will feel a satisfaction that will far exceed any possible monetary gain.”
The very act of making is healing in that it can be a form of meditation or reflection. Being able to look back on past memories gives room for acceptance and having the ability to create rather than destroy also allows for a sense of reassurance.
Artist Ehren Tool, a Marine veteran who served in the first Gulf War, makes ceramic cups decorated with images of war and conflict. After completing his time in the Marines, Ehren took advantage of the GI Bill and received a BFA from the University of Southern California in 2000 and his MFA in 2005 from the University of California at Berkeley. In our interview he states, “Making cups is a pretty impotent little gesture with all the bullshit that’s going on. But I don’t really know what else to do sincerely.” Clearly, these cups serve as the stimulus for discourse. A quote from his recent exhibition at the Museum of Craft and Design, Ehren states:
“The images on the cups are often graphic and hard to look at. You may be for or against a particular war but I think it is too easy for us to look away. I think we as a country and as humans should look at what is actually going on… I would like my work to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the world. That is a lot to ask of a cup…”
Though the cups he makes may not necessarily be for anyone in particular, he hopes that the images or texts may incite conversation. Having served overseas, and then returning to a place where there is a clear disconnect, Tool serves as that vessel to bring forth the awareness of the afflictions of combat. Having someone recognize or find some connection to the cups he makes are just segways into the larger conversation. One by one, these cups link different individuals of all backgrounds creating a network of people who may not have been connected otherwise.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) are similar in the way they present in veterans. Also, both are common among veterans that return from combat. These conditions can make it hard to cope with day-to-day activities. By means of making, veterans are able to convey positive feelings, externalize difficult emotions and gain insight into their PTSD symptoms. With PTSD, traumatic memories become stored and its intensity over time remains vivid and raw. Veterans sometimes refer to the past as being more real than the present, describing how past trauma can be heard, smelt or felt, whereas the present can seem foggy and numb. Art-making fosters discussion and allows veterans to show empathy for one another. Josée Leclerc, a professor in the Department of Creative Arts Therapies states:
“Art therapy can engage the creative potential of individuals — especially those suffering from PTSD. Art therapy is considered a mind-body intervention that can influence physiological and psychological symptoms. The experience of expressing oneself creatively can reawaken positive emotions and address symptoms of emotional numbing in individuals with PTSD.”
A veteran who was once considered a destructor can now — through the means of creating— foster new thoughts and ideas that can aid in the rehabilitation process.
Research has shown that traumatic memories are held in the non-verbal right brain which can be accessed by art therapy using its own language of symbols and sensations, then externalized and decoded in order to create a narrative. In this way, new neural pathways are formed that can alter function. Art therapy improves communication between the brain hemispheres, which assists in the processing of the trauma material. In other words, craft and memories in the brain enable a notion of transference. Being able to take memories and some how decode and synthesize a new interpretation is a way an individual can understand the trauma they’ve experienced.
Another ceramic artist I was able to exchange emails with is Jesse Albrecht. A veteran who served in Iraq states, “I feel all art is therapy (hopefully). I don’t think my art has healed me in any way, more empowered me and created a hobby that is engaging and rewarding. Art has provided a network of fellow combat veteran artists, along with other art friends, friend friends, and family that keep me above ground.” Empowerment means to gain a positive purpose in one’s life that builds self-esteem and personal meaning, this type of empowerment can be hard to attain for veterans who feel isolated and therefore have a limited outlook on life. With his practice and the community he’s fostered through his art, Jesse has been able to reclaim and find relief in the process. By being empowered, others in one’s path may be encouraged to follow suit.
For many veterans, feeling disenfranchised within society and misunderstood is a common story. Similarly, some veterans do not know where to find public forums that will allow them to transition back to civilian life or express their feelings and experiences as ex-soldiers. Unfortunately, many find little assistance, and they struggle through these difficult life changes. Consequently, such veterans typically remain secluded, invisible in general society, struggling to communicate with people in the general population. Nevertheless, for veterans who lack experience making art, crafts do create new avenues to self-expression. Veterans gain a sense of camaraderie by making arts and crafts together and sharing stories of their experiences with each other. Agostinone-Wilson notes that “the community is both social and isolating at once as crafting is marked by periods of solitude and sharing . . . we can view the sameness of craft items as expressions of . . . community interests and values” (90). The power of craft for veterans, then, lies in the social interaction that flows naturally from the arts and crafts process in a community setting.
Artist Jessica Putnam-Phillips, an Air Force veteran, explores the medium of ceramics. In her work, she attempts to the use the material of clay to carry a different meaning. She takes the notion of serving and uses the objects she makes, traditional serving platters, to depict women who serve in the military. She brings to light social and cultural issues that female soldiers face within the masculine field of the military. In her artist statement she writes, “I combine military iconography, such as: weapons, armored vehicles, uniforms and insignias with the traditional elements of classical willow ware patterns. This re-imagining subverts the once benign decoration while creating a narrative that is personal yet makes timely and much needed social commentary.” She suggests that the experiences and memories of the battle field are incompatible with the expected performance of womanhood. Challenging the way in which others perceive women and their role to serve, she empowers the work by creating a new narrative.
For the women who have served in the arm forces, the Combat Paper Project’s, Paper Doll book is an example of the importance of learning from others through dialogue and personal stories as a central viewpoint. Females who have served in the armed forces have a special narrative to tell. By giving new life to one’s uniform in the form of paper, one is able to share their narrative in a very personal way. Stories are rich in historical, psychological, and human perspectives. All humans have stories to share in order to construct knowledge and self-development. Storytelling is a means of community bonding that allows the teller to gain control of the moment and ensure understanding of his or her narrative. “The relationship of living, telling, retelling, and reliving stories is, then, at the heart of the construction of narratives.” The narrative does not reflect the reality, but with the help of the reader, narratives can create a version of reality that anyone can identify with.
The importance of mandating handicraft into the Veterans Administration’s regimen is a great one. A veteran returning home from combat should not be immediately prescribed copious amounts of prescription drugs. Prescribed medication can only masks symptoms for so long. As an alternative, one should be encouraged to seek therapy by means of making. The artist veterans mentioned have implanted their experiences in the objects they create. Using craft as their voice, these artists have transformed their lives through the process of making. People empower themselves through interaction, production and collaboration. As a result, those who participate in making construct understanding about themselves, others and the world around them.
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2. Albrecht, Jesse (e-mail message, April 15, 2016).
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