War's Pain, Softened With a Brush Stroke

(Painting By Aaron Hughes)
By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 15, 2007

Eric Edmondson cannot express in words what he remembers about the fall day in Iraq 18 months ago when a roadside bomb and then a heart attack left him with shrapnel wounds and brain damage. The 26-year-old veteran is no longer able to eat, walk or talk. But he can pick up a paint brush.

When he does, his father sees in the former Army sergeant's face glimmers of memory and healing as he seeks to paint his thoughts on blank paper.

"I can tell by his expression he's enjoying it," Ed Edmondson said of the art therapy class Eric has taken in the weeks since he left a Veterans Affairs hospital in Richmond for a private rehabilitation center in Chicago. "I don't care what it looks like. It's beautiful to me."

Veterans with traumatic combat injuries often find healing power in art. They communicate through pencil and charcoal drawings, sculpture and painting. Their images range from calm, colorful landscapes to mangled vehicles, prisoners and carnage. It's a therapy recognized as especially helpful to those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Yet veteran and military hospitals employ few art therapists. The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in the District and Walter Reed Army Medical Center provide limited art therapy classes. VA hospitals in Baltimore, Richmond and Philadelphia offer none. Nationwide, VA medical centers employ 691 therapists; of those, 36 are music and 18 are art therapists, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Paula Howie, president of the American Art Therapy Association, was director of art therapy at Walter Reed from 1980 to 2002. She had eight art therapists on staff during that time. Now the medical center has one full-time and one part-time art therapist.

"I think what was happening is that there were a lot of funding cuts," said Howie, who went into private practice in Silver Spring after retiring from Walter Reed. "People started to say, 'Do you want a nurse, or would you like to have an art therapist?' "

Army medical researchers have noted high rates of PTSD among Iraq war veterans, especially those wounded in combat. A study led by Col. Charles W. Hoge at Walter Reed found that wounded soldiers had a 32 percent chance of experiencing PTSD symptoms, which can include psychological distress, depression, substance abuse, hyper-vigilance and diminished appetite for previous hobbies and interests. Uninjured soldiers who were studied had a PTSD rate of 14 percent.

Bob Ault, an art therapist who works with veterans in Topeka, Kan., said the scarcity of art therapists in veteran and military hospitals is unfortunate. "Art therapy is a non-threatening way to help people with PTSD experience their feelings," he said.

David Read Johnson, who directed an inpatient unit at the VA's National Center for PTSD in Connecticut, said art programs began to disappear after he left the center in 1997.

"In the 1970s and 1980s, creative arts therapies were doing well," said Johnson, a psychologist who now runs a private PTSD center in New Haven. "But it's just like in schools: You cut the arts first."

Johnson cited other factors behind the trend. Some therapists and psychologists, he said, have been moving away from art and emphasizing cognitive behavior therapy. Such therapy helps patients examine the way they think about their trauma and how their thought process affects their behavior.

"Everyone knows for select veterans, art therapy has been extremely helpful," Johnson said. "But it's a silly thing to say art therapy is better than Prozac. It's like saying a shirt is better than pants. You need them both."

Drew Cameron, who served with the Army in Iraq from April to December 2003, said art has kept him grounded since he returned home and began studying forestry at the University of Vermont. Cameron's paintings and poetry were displayed at Busboys and Poets in the District marking the anniversary of the war last month. They included a bright-red image of a blood-smeared handprint.

Cameron was not wounded in Iraq but has sought VA counseling for emotional stress. "I think everyone comes back a changed person through the horrible trauma," he said. "It's not enticing to talk about it when you can create and express yourself through art."

Art therapy grew in popularity when Vietnam veterans began returning to the United States with high rates of PTSD in the 1960s and '70s.

The National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, established in 1981, was born from this movement. Now the museum is starting to showcase the works of Iraq veterans. An exhibit called "Back From Iraq" will open May 19.

"We wrestled with changing the name of the museum," said Michael Helbing, the curator. "That was just to make it inclusive. But we decided we had an identity and could still be a venue for all veteran art."

One artist featured at the museum is Aaron Hughes, 25, who was a design student at the University of Illinois before being deployed to Kuwait in April 2003. He served in convoy missions in Iraq as a sergeant in the Illinois National Guard.

"When I was deployed, everything I had valued wasn't true," said Hughes, who is now against the war. He draws, paints and does theatrical performances to express his experience. "I realized I needed to do artwork," he said, adding that it helped him find "comprehension of my time in Iraq."

At the VA Medical Center in the District, veterans gather once a week for art therapy. On a recent afternoon, a veteran from the 1991 Gulf War and another from World War II worked in the art room with a recreational therapist who is not certified in the field of art therapy.

John Spraker of Olney, a former Air Force staff sergeant, was injured in a noncombat accident during the 1991 war. At 58, he has been battling PTSD for more than a decade.

"Some days I can think clearly, and when I'm not battling depression, I can usually do some good stuff," said Spraker, who was drawing a soldier with pencil. He had never done art before beginning the therapy.

"I feel like I'm making progress," he said, his speech slow and particular. "I am on strong medication for pain. Art relaxes me. It lets me be creative and gives me something to focus on and get into the drawing. It does a lot for me."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company