When something like this event happens in your life, sometimes the only reaction possible is jaw-opening speechlessness. (Which I'm told is a rarity in my company!) The 2011 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival was a life-changer and life-affirmer. The moment I got off the plane in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I felt the love, respect and honor that was directed toward us, the 130 Veterans out of almost 4000 who were chosen to participate. We were of all ages, colors, branches of service; all of us knew the particular pain of being a Veteran who has been way down but also the lifting up our spirits through our craft and art work. All of us had a "disability." My particular challenge has been Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
I would have never known about this event had I not been approached by the Arts Counselor at the VA Monterey Clinic last March. He saw me with my knitted scarves and asked if I wanted to be a part of an exhibition/contest designed to inspire and illuminate other Veterans in the healing work of art. He also learned I was a writer, though I've been "lost" of some sort for the past 10 years. (That happens with PTSD - limbo land, as I refer to it.)
As limited as my life had become, the thought that someone else might be able to "get through" the pain a little easier than I've had to was my primary goal. It challenged me to crawl out of my comfort zone in order to share some of what I've learned through life's many lessons.
It was my poetry/prose that won a gold medal, placing first in the National Poetry-Other Creative Writing division. I left Monterey with a mindset of limitations I placed upon myself and returned home knowing that the sky is the limit, an emotion I've not been in touch with for decades. I could be that bold-spirited Kelly again. Accepted by the general public. And loved on such a grand scale. Life had knocked that out of me for so long, even now I am still getting used to receiving so many blessings.
I was unprepared for the enormity of the National Arts Festival. Having only, in the last year, come out of the worst of PTSD symptoms, I felt like Rip Van Winkle as I mucked my way back toward good mental and physical health. It took great bravery as I told myself that I MUST attend the event, as it feels like a miracle I won this honor!
From early in the morning till late in the evening, we were directed, taught and guided to participate in a huge production that honors Veterans across the country. It is to be broadcast next year before the Festival, which will be held in Boston 2012. (Veterans, start looking for information in March 2012 from your Art Therapists about participating. Just...WOW!)
Each day we were presented with positive, upbeat groups and practices. Each person who made it possible for this event in Arkansas made sure we received a big "Thank you for your service." There were gifts from wonderful people and organizations who assist Veterans down on their luck. Then our day progressed as the learning to be a part of a televised broadcast was put together and adjusted to accommodate our needs and their needs. It was hard for me. I had to take those breaks in our schedule sometimes to utilize the coping skills I have learned to walk away, to be with me and God. I did it! I couldn't have done it without all these folks backing us though.
During the week, we went on a train ride up through the Arkansas Ozarks and then were treated to a dinner and show at The Jones Center, where a high school band played patriotic songs for us. Women and children lined the sidewalks with placards thanking us Veterans and saying "I love you." Couldn't help but cry a bit out of gratitude here. Later, there were workshops for creative arts/crafts, venues for sharing our written pieces, as well as karaoke for fun. The nursing staff, whom I became acquainted with during my stay, bent over backwards to ensure we had all the meds and support we needed.
The seven days of work paid off as we performed a beautiful production to honor Veterans and their families all over the world. I must say, I breathed a sigh of relief when I walked off that stage on Sunday. I survived, learned to have more fun, and made it through the week.
Whatever you do, America, don't stop with the respect, honor and acknowledgement you send our way. We are still your Warriors for Peace. With your caring validation to Veterans, I truly believe what brought out the "hero" in us throughout our lives will resurface as we heal.
Thank you for caring. I love you, too.
* VA has supported art and music therapy programs for more than 20 years, recognizing how this event demonstrates to the public the multiple talents of our nation’s Veterans.