Art Helps Veterans Heal from War


Dominick DeTore took up photography while he was stationed in Iraq in 2004. He captured the scenery. Rock formations. Open fields. Rivers.

Then an improvised explosive device went off during a routine night foot patrol in Hit, west of Baghdad in the Anbar province of Iraq, on July 20, 2005.

“I got shrapnel wounds in both of my legs and my shoulders,” DeTore said. “My right eye was hit. I lost a lot of muscle out of my left leg. And I eventually had to have my eye removed and have a prosthetic put in.”

DeTore stopped taking photographs while his body physically healed. Now DeTore is one of about ten recent veterans from Iraq or Afghanistan who are using art to heal from physical and emotional wounds. They are in a 16-year-old program of creative arts therapy open to all veterans at the Syracuse Veterans Administration Medical Center.

Inpatients go two or three times a week to a makeshift studio in a corner of their hospital ward. Outpatients are encouraged to create art at home. They paint. They sculpt. They make collages. They chat with each other and with an art therapist. They recreate the scenery of Central New York or simply add colors to a canvas in an abstract painting.

The idea is to use the art to cope with their feelings, said Suzanne Hawes, lead recreation therapist at the VA Medical Center. “It’s a good way to express oneself, because verbally sometimes it’s just not as easy to communicate their feelings or those stressors,” said Hawes. “And the art is a great way to channel those energies.”

The program is largely funded through donations. Much of the art supplies, for example, come fromHelp Hospitalized Veterans, a nonprofit based in California, Hawes said. It sends $15,000 to $20,000 of arts and crafts to the hospital every three months. The veterans also buy some of their own art supplies.

The program’s biggest expense is the annual art competition in March. Last year was the first year the competition was outside the hospital. It was at Onondaga Community College and cost the VA $600. This year, it was at the Onondaga County War Memorial at the OnCenter. The center gave the VA a discount, Hawes said, and the competition cost $350.

The art-therapy program is open to all veterans. Hawes reaches out to veterans through the VA’s annual “Welcome Home” event in June. She’s also going to use Facebook and other online communities to connect with more veterans, she said.

“I would like to definitely target and see if we can get more people,” Hawes said.

Becky Ross, a recreation therapist, works with veterans from multiple generations. Art therapy is an integral part of a broader recreation therapy regimen in recovery, she said. For those still hospitalized, the art therapy draws them out of their beds, she said, “to do something fun that’s nonthreatening that allows them to reach the same things that they’re doing in other treatments.”

Efren Lopez, a combat photographer and now a student in the Newhouse School’s military journalism program, is among the outpatients who come a few times a month. He’s been in the Air Force for 14 years. In 2009 — just two months after arriving in Afghanistan — Lopez’ unit was hit by a suicide bomber.

His memories of it are still vivid: Himself standing in dust and haze. Bodies of his comrades scattered around the center of the explosion. Soldiers huddled around a chunk of the suicide bomber’s face.

Scenes so vivid that he thought he had photographed them. But some scenes he had captured only with his mind. “It was the time when I took the camera away from my face so the picture was there in my head,” Lopez recalled. “But it wasn’t in the camera itself.”

When he returned four months later to his base in Riverside, Calif., he said, he and friends noticed differences in his behavior: Driving his car more carefully. Getting angry at his two children more easily. No longer wanting to take pictures.

He sought treatment at the VA, where therapists advised him to start taking photos again. His art went from painful reminder of his time in Afghanistan to a form of therapy. “To me,” he said, “it seems like everything in my life revolves around photography.”

For Dominick DeTore, the reasons for joining the art-therapy program were much the same. He missed being behind the camera while he waited for his shrapnel wounds to heal. And he was not going to let his new prosthetic right eye prevent him for taking pictures. “I just use the other one for the viewfinder,” he said.

Returning to photography helped him ease his post-traumatic stress disorder, DeTore said. Now, whenever DeTore thinks too much about his time in Iraq, he focuses on his photography to take his mind off disturbing memories.

“It helps the recovery process because it kind of takes your mind away from thinking about what’s happening with your body,” DeTore said. “It gives you something else to do. It gives your brain something else to work on.”

(Rebecca Kheel is a senior with dual majors in newspaper journalism and history.)


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