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Creative Forces Network Funds Free Therapeutic Arts Programs for Veterans

Two U.S. Cabinet departments partner with a federal arts agency and community arts engagement programs for vets and their families across the country

By Patricia Corrigan

Veterans and family members in San Diego reveal their family histories through digital storytelling and photography. In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, female veterans share their experiences in the military — and their art — with school children. New visual arts and reflection classes in Evanston, Illinois, help support veterans' healing and reintegration. 

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Alfonso Hernandez Barrera and Marimar Hernandez of San Diego.  |  Credit: Courtesy of Alfonso Hernandez Barrera and Marimar Hernandez

"Therapeutic supportive interventions for veterans need a variety of approaches," said Erik Engel, an art therapy facilitator in Evanston. A licensed clinical social worker and a veteran, Engel, 57, added, "Veterans are a unique population, very different from civilians, and they should be treated that way."

Creative Forces has provided more than 103,000 creative arts encounters to more than 18,000 service members, veterans and their family members at clinical sites and through telehealth services.

Funding for free classes and programs across the country comes from Creative Forces®: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in partnership with the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs that seeks to improve the health, well-being and quality of life for military and veteran populations exposed to trauma, as well as their families and caregivers.

Since that partnership began in 2004, Creative Forces has provided more than 103,000 creative arts encounters to more than 18,000 service members, veterans and their family members at clinical sites and through telehealth services. The impacts of the programs as part of an integrated care model have been documented in 25 Creative Forces-connected clinical and research articles published in peer-reviewed journals. 

Since 2017, Creative Forces has invested in community arts engagement activities for military and veteran populations exposed to trauma, and a nationwide community engagement grant program began in 2022. This past summer, in partnership with the Mid-America Arts Alliance, the NEA announced $764,783 in awards for 34 such programs, including the three highlighted here. 

'It's Really Not About a Product'

"We are designing an art therapy program tailored to female service members who have experienced military sexual trauma and others," said Rob Lentz, 51, executive director of the nonprofit Open Studio Project in Evanston. "The Evanston Vet Center identified a need for more services for women, and our expressive arts process is well suited." 

The program, scheduled to begin this month, intrigued Engel, who has worked with veterans for almost 20 years. "I'll use art therapist and author Pat B. Allen's facilitator model," he said. "We'll start with a written or spoken intention, then the art-making, followed by stream-of-consciousness writing."

Setting an intention first shifts the mindset to the present, to move forward, Engel said. "Some participants may say they plan to play around with acrylic paints, and some may decide to get some anger out." In each two-hour session, Engel will provide brief instructions for creating a collage, a painting, a drawing or a hand-built sculpture. At the end of the class, participants will have the option to view each woman's work and listen to writings, without comment. 

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A participant in a Creative Forces-funded class in San Diego practices framing a photo.   |  Credit: Aron Montano

"The class is structured to provide a sense of safety," Engel said. "There is no right or wrong, as it's really not about a product, but about a process. Some people heal better using a non-verbal expressive modality, and this helps them do expressive work. Then, maybe they will set up more intensive talk therapy sessions. That's the beauty of this." 

'Our Goal Is Re-Integration for the Vets'

For the second year, ArtsQuest, a nonprofit in Bethlehem, will offer programming that supports female veterans' ritual story-telling and empowerment through Women Veterans Empowered and Thriving (WVE&T). The collaboration will feature film screenings, spoken word performances, art exhibitions and educational events for some 500 local students. 


"The Creative Forces grant will help us amplify the women's voices and help them connect with youth," said Lisa Harms, 46, senior director of visual arts and education at ArtsQuest. (Read the organization's compelling history here.) "In 2024, this educational element will highlight the veterans' stories through spoken word and through their art." Some veterans also will lead or participate in panel discussions and lectures open to the larger Lehigh Valley community. 

"The veterans who will tell their stories may have never told their stories before because there was not a protective, supportive space for that," said Jenny Pacanowski, founder and director of WVE&T. "They will speak about why they joined the military, what jobs they did and what happened to them during or after their service. Depending on the age group of the audience, some stories may include experiences of trauma."  

A person holding their hands up with their eyes closed. Next Avenue
Jenny Pacanowski takes part in a Creative Forces-funded program early in 2023 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.   |  Credit: Corinna Brown

Pacanowski, 43, added, "Our goal is re-integration for the vets and also to help build a community that will welcome them home in a way that is healthy, and in a way that goes beyond shaking hands and saying, 'Thanks for your service.' So many people don't want to talk about war trauma and rape – but they will watch it on TV. That's disconnection, and WVE&T advocates for reconnections." 

A combat veteran, Pacanowski served in Iraq as a medic, where she helped people stay alive. "Now I want to help people release trauma from their hearts, their minds and their bodies," she said. "I want veterans to live happy and proud — not just survive — 24 hours a day. I want them to feel seen, to be recognized authentically for what they went through in the military and to be valued."

'The Military Shapes a Big Part of Our Lives'

Veterans and military-connected individuals in San Diego are eligible to take part in "Cameras in Communities: Our Family, Our Story," an intergenerational program offered by the nonprofit Outside the Lens. The eight-week program, which explores digital storytelling and documentary photography,  culminates in a public exhibition of participants' media art.

Previous programs focused on storytelling through photography and filmmaking, "but this one goes beyond, into new media, including extended realties, which is an umbrella term for virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence," said Lanae King, 33, lead educator. "The hybrid skills participants are learning will help them develop their creative vision to express their stories." All equipment is provided.

"Now I want to help people release trauma from their hearts, their minds and their bodies."

At the first session in September, participants wrote poems about their backgrounds, recorded videos while reading the poems and then turned the videos into augmented reality posters. "Telling my personal story was a bit of a challenge," said Petty Officer Second Class Alfonso Hernandez Barrera, 29, "but I overcame that and recorded myself reading my poem." A jet refueler, currently he works in administration at Naval Surface Force Pacific Command. 

"We saw a flyer at the USO about the class, and we wanted to learn more about it," said Marimar Hernandez, Barrera's wife. "We also thought it was a great opportunity to connect with the community." She is finishing an undergraduate degree at Rutgers Business School. They arrived in San Diego in June after a two-year posting in Italy. 

For the class, both are focusing on their individual stories. "We're telling about our families and how we like to travel," Barrera said.

Hernandez added that they are sharing how they identify as being affiliated with the military. "That shapes a big part of our lives, and we want to express how grateful we are to take part in a program like this."

Patricia Corrigan
Patricia Corrigan is a professional journalist, with decades of experience as a reporter and columnist at a metropolitan daily newspaper, and also a book author. She has written for Next Avenue since February 2015. Read more from Patricia at Read More
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