Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Through art, military veterans are able to express what they find difficult to convey in words, says Mary Bourgeois, who served in the United States Army for 13 years.
Bourgeois is among thousands of veterans who are receiving services through the VA Medical Center in Battle Creek. Among those services are art therapy classes that focus on painting, writing, and music, among other art forms.
“I can say a lot more through art than I could say through words and that’s why it’s called therapeutic art,” Bourgeois says. “People look at my stuff and ask me what I’m trying to say.”
Examples of the art created by veterans include a display of rocks that were painted teal in observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April. The rocks that bear messages are displayed in an area near the Outpatient Mental Health buildings on the VA campus.
“Mine says ‘Hope, Love, Recovery.’ They’re positive and uplifting and some of them have butterflies painted on them,” Bourgeois says.
While Bourgeois focuses on the positive today, a lot of the feelings she and other veterans are working to express go back to their military experience and what they went through during that time, says Todd Greenman, Chief, Volunteer and Community Services.
The Battle Creek VAMC Music Therapy Band rehearses their music.
The general public will get a glimpse into the artistic talents of veterans from throughout the United States during the 2019 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival
which is being hosted by the Battle Creek VA Medical Center and the American Legion Auxiliary at Miller Auditorium on the campus of Western Michigan University. The Festival begins on Oct. 28 and culminates Nov. 3 with an Art and Writing Exhibition followed by a Stage Show Performance at 2 p.m., both of which are open to the public.
Greenman says this year’s show is the first one hosted by the Battle Creek VA. Last year’s Arts Festival took place in Iowa and Greenman traveled there to see what it was all about. What he expected was a talent show. What he found, he says, was a very professionally done show with a full orchestra and performances that rivaled the quality of any arts event that takes place at Miller Auditorium.
There is a national selection process that veterans who want to enter into the show must undergo.
“Veterans have to submit their artwork, writing, music, acting or dancing and we judge them locally. Those that have music or art therapy can submit their work,” Greenman says. “Everyone who wins at the local level goes on to compete at the national level and those judges pick who will be in the show. There are thousands of entries and they only select about 150.”
The Battle Creek VA will be represented in this year’s show by two of their veterans.
Although the Stage Show is the main event for audience members, the entire week leading up to it will be packed with workshops on various topics, rehearsals, and visits to local attractions such as the Gilmore Car Museum and the Kalamazoo Air Zoo for the more than 150 veterans who will either be displaying or performing their art or showing up to support someone they know.
The Creative Arts Festival is one of many tools the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and its 75 locations in all 50 states have been doing to educate veterans and non-veterans alike about the ever-changing programs and services available to veterans of all ages, ethnicities, and sexual orientations.
While it’s true that the major focus at VA’s, including the one in Battle Creek, is on medical and mental health services, Bourgeois says the government agency continues to expand on the depth and breadth of what it does to address the needs of all veterans. This includes, assisting homeless veterans with securing stable housing and employment; focusing on the needs of veterans who identify as LGBTQ; on-site recreational opportunities such as bowling and golf; and a greenhouse where vets can hone their gardening skills.
“It’s really a city within a city,” Greenman says of the Battle Creek VA.
Participants art adorns the wall at the VA in Battle Creek.
Despite the size of the VA campus – 206 acres with 30 buildings – many people still don’t know it’s here, says Brian Pegouske, Public Affairs Officer with the Battle Creek VA.
“In general it’s kind of tucked away and people don’t think of us as being around,” he says.
This is true for the general public and veterans.
“A lot of it is general misperceptions with veterans out there about what they’re eligible for, especially veterans who have been out of the military for some time. They may not know they’re eligible for veteran benefits,” Pegouske says.
Complementing the on-site opportunities available as part of their benefits, are outreach activities such as the Stand Down event at Full Blast on Oct. 18. The daylong event provides free haircuts, clothing, food and resources for veterans in the community. There also will be people with sewing machines and sewing kits to repair clothing.
Dwayne Kelly, a Community Employment Coordinator with the Battle Creek VA, says Stand Down is a national initiative that began as a way to connect veterans with VA and community resources. Kelly says community partners will make up some of the 100 vendors expected to be at the event.
“I spend about 90 percent of my time doing community outreach,” Kelly says. “It’s important that as a VA community we reach out to some of the vets who are unaware of the support services available. A lot of our outreach happens at homeless centers or the grocery store.”
Kelly, who was raised in Detroit, is a product of the very resources and services he now talks about with other veterans. After serving in the Marines for seven years, he returned home to civilian life. In 2006 he went through a divorce and says that’s when his problems really began.
“It was devastating. I went from a structured environment to nothing,” Kelly says. “I went into survival mode and was in and out of sobriety for about five years. I told myself that I didn’t drink, ‘I had libations.’ When I went into the VA in 2011, I was ready to give up.”
He transitioned out of the VA in Detroit and spent 12 days at a mental health facility where he underwent treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. People he received help from at the Detroit VA suggested that he come to the Battle Creek VA where they offer residential treatment programs for substance abuse, treatment for PTSD, and psycho-social rehab.
“I came here with a bag and two outfits in 2011 and made a decision that I really wanted to engage and learn the programs they introduced me to because I knew that could really help me,” Kelly says.
One year later, he became a Peer Support Specialist and worked in the community. In 2017, he took a position as a rehab and employment specialist, his current job.
“I went from homelessness to homeownership,” Kelly says. “It took me 30 years to find home. I was always lonely and I missed the camaraderie I had while serving.”
Kelly is among the 35 percent of the Battle Creek VA’s 1,600 inpatient and outpatient employees who are veterans. These employees and a group of 550 volunteers provide services and assistance to more than 44,000 veterans annually, 3,000 of whom are women.
At therapeutic writing and art classes veterans find new ways to express themselves.
Veterans between the ages of 45 and 74 make up the largest segment of those served by the VA, according to its annual report. Pegouske says there also are a few vets who are over 100-years-old.
About 44 percent of the total population served at the VA are Vietnam veterans. Pegouske says the majority of them did not have a good relationship with the government in general and this spilled over to their dealings with the VA. For some, it was not being acknowledged, for others it was because of the way their medical treatment was delivered.
“Medical care, in general, was different back then. We didn’t understand about mental issues and the treatment wasn’t there,” Pegouske says. “The veterans we’re treating for PTSD represent a small percentage” of those who need it.
One of the other major mental health issues the VA is confronting is suicide among veterans. Greenman says nationally an estimated 20 veterans commit suicide every day.
“The majority of these veterans are not involved with us,” he says. “We do a lot of education about suicide prevention and we are willing to go out and talk to groups about it. It takes a community and public health approach to raise awareness across the board.”
“We’re more than a psychiatric facility,” Bourgeois says of the VA, “however, psychological and psychiatric services are still the main focus and there’s still a lot of stigma attached to mental health services.”
Some of this stigma goes back to movies such as “Born on the Fourth of July”
, which portrays veterans as emotionally unavailable, trigger happy, and unable to manage their PTSD.
Pegouske says the mental health issues affecting veterans are more visible due in part to advances in technology and medical care that gives them the ability to survive injuries that killed veterans in previous wars. He says many of these surviving veterans saw the devastation that weapons such as high-powered machine guns and IED’s had on the lives of their fellow soldiers and civilians during combat and are now re-living it because they survived.
Bourgeois says she came to the VA to receive treatment for her PTSD. Like Kelly, she had run out of options and knew she needed help after several failed suicide attempts.
“It used to be a medieval model where the provider said, ‘this is what’s wrong and this is what we’re going to do,'” says Bourgeois, a registered nurse not currently practicing. “That changed. So we now have the provider and a team working together with the patient to decide the best course of care. These patient-aligned care teams contain an RN and LPN, a social worker, and doctors.”
Kelly says the VA promotes recovery which has many different facets and forms. He says veterans aren’t limited to one specific area of care and extended programs are in place to give individuals the ability to function fully in their community and society.
“We have transitioned to a whole health approach in primary care where we’re looking at the goals of the patient and finding solutions to achieve those goals as a medical team,” Pegouske says. “The resources are all in one place versus a lot of specialty care and they’re not going too different places or providers.”
While these programs and services are critical to the ongoing support of the veterans served by the VA, Greenman says they are always looking for volunteers and donations to augment what is provided through government funding.
“A lot of vets come in with little more than the clothes on their backs,” he says. “We’re fortunate to have a lot of veteran’s organizations, churches, and schools that do activities and events out here with our veterans.”
A number of veterans don’t have family nearby or they have lost contact with their families, so anything to lift their spirits is important, Kelly says.
Brian Pegouske, Public Affairs Officer with the Battle Creek VA.
It can be something as simple as a freshly-baked cookie and a hot cup of coffee or a Christmas gift, which may be the only one they receive, or it could be a hug and a “thank you.” Greenman says on the first Tuesday of each month employees with the Kellogg Co. who are also veterans come out to the VA to hug veterans there and thank them for their service.
Known as the Human Hug Project,
it’s a national program started two months ago by two veterans with a goal of traveling around to every VA. Pegouske says they’ve made it to 40 so far.
“The federal funding provides the medical care and salaries, but donations provide things beyond that and certainly add to a better quality of life and community inclusion,” Pegouske says. “When people think of the VA, they think of hospitals. We are so much more than that.”
Photos by Susan Andress. See more of her work here.