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Feb 24, 2017 | The Rev. David Peters

Veterans Move from Trauma to Hope

 


“I haven’t drawn anything—painted anything—since I was five,” said one of the men as he dipped his brush into the bright red paint. Around the table were veterans who had served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Desert Storm, Korea and Vietnam. They were there to create something from their experiences in war and homecoming.  

Dwight A. Gray both painted and wrote about the trauma he experienced in war. Others too, set their thoughts to paper during the gathering for veterans and their families at St. David’s, Austin.

 

We met four times in the library at St. David’s, Austin, each time with a different prompt for our writing and painting. When we put our brushes down, we told the group about our painting and then we prayed Compline. Austin-based artist Elizabeth Decker facilitated the group and encouraged us to risk being vulnerable as we created something on the paper.

Words are often inadequate to express what it is like to go to war. When I came home from Iraq, everyone I met asked me what it was like there. In classic extrovert fashion, I launched into a description of my experiences, all the while thinking, “This is nonsense. I’m not saying what I really think.” I felt like a babbling idiot, so I stopped talking about Iraq with people. The most I would ever say was, “It was really hot.” Then I would smile and they would smile, too.

Turning the traumatic experiences of war and homecoming into art is an age-old practice. The relevance for today is well documented and I first encountered it observing Melissa Walker’s work with patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

In the Psalms of David, a warrior who had “slain ten-thousands,” according to the popular song of the day, wrote a large number of Psalms classified as “Lament.” The Lament Jesus quotes from his cross, Psalm 22, begins, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” This Lament comes from the depths of his soul and echoes in our hearts 3,000 years later, giving veterans today permission to express personal feelings after discouragement, loss and trauma. And this happened in the workshops several times as participates painted their pain.

It wasn’t easy to hear—it never is—but we listened to each other, and we brought those unresolved feelings to God in prayer.

The first part of Lament is painful to watch, for it can cause all sorts of responses in the observer. But the second part of Lament has a hopeful tone. It can be seen in the Psalms and in many of the paintings and comments about them from the participants.

Getting Back Up

Before I’ve even taken a step the legs become rubber.

It seems like hours, standing atop Elk Mountain waiting

for the strength to come back. Light begins to shape the prairie,

granite rock emerges, as do bison grazing in a field

of Indian paintbrush.
Nearby, a lizard scampers out on the ledge. My eyes still

focusing, I’m reduced to hearing its soft feet clambering,

to forgetting ever falling. For a second I can walk anywhere.

— Dwight A. Gray

Hope is not the removal of pain, but a glimpse of a new future. Many of us were able to see that future, even if it was through a glass darkly. Many of the works created in the art workshops were displayed at our Veterans Conference on Moral Injury in November, 2016. Conference attendees shared how they found hope in the midst of the darkness, a testament to the healing power of creating.

With several generous financial gifts, the Episcopal Veterans Fellowship was able to plan art workshops for veterans in Georgetown and Round Rock. We are hoping to expand this work to parishes across the nation, gathering veterans to create and heal.

Peters is assistant rector at St. Mark’s, Austin. For more information, contact Peters at   or call him at 512.571.4124.

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