Heartfelt Emotions Veterans Suffering from PTSD Find Healing in Art, Music, Poetry

Article excerpt

Byline: William A. Baltz Daily Herald correspondent By William A. Baltz Daily Herald correspondent

It is a festive and patriotic gathering of veterans who come together to sing, share their art and poetry, and tell jokes.

For the men and women who attend this "expressive arts session" every Friday morning at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago, it is also an important part of their therapy.

They are young and old, and battled different foes in different regions of the world in conflicts spanning seven decades. United by their experience as combat veterans, they assemble to help each other overcome another common enemy: post-traumatic stress disorder.

"PTSD can be insidious and defy short-term fixes," said Dr. John Bair, a clinical psychologist who directs outpatient programs at Lovell designed to treat PTSD -- a condition that can afflict soldiers who experience intense trauma such as captivity, torture and combat.

Bair, who has been treating PTSD for 35 years, says that when events like these happen to some people -- not all, because everyone's brain is different -- their neural pathways are altered.

"Chemicals flood the brain to shut down emotions, causing a person to either run away or fight," Bair said. "The problem is, they never come down from this state of hyper-vigilance."

PTSD symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, mood swings and depression. Complex chemical interactions that occur in the brain from trauma make it challenging to treat with medications.

"Fostering creativity and allowing for self expression through art, music and writing keeps the brain busy in a positive way," Bair said.

The veterans treated for PTSD at Lovell, as in- and outpatients and through a variety of programs, come from all service branches, conflicts and walks of life.

Vietnam veteran Lonnie Givens, 63, of Gurnee helped Bair start the expressive arts session 10 years ago.

"Some people said it wouldn't work," Givens said. "But it has changed lives."

He cites veterans who came to the sessions withdrawn and disturbed and now are blossoming as writers, musicians and artists, as well as graduating from college and getting jobs.

At one Friday session, consisting of about 50 veterans and their spouses, Bair asks if anyone is attending for the first time.

One veteran responds that he was a medic in Operation Desert Storm during the early 1990s. Another recently returned from three tours in Iraq in Naval Special Operations.

"Ten days after I was transferred from the barracks to another location, suicide bombers blew them up," former Marine Randy Lund, 50 of Waukegan said of the 1983 attack in Beirut that killed 241 American troops, including many of his friends.

The group applauds them for their courage to step forward.

Ceremony and rituals honoring veterans are also an important part of therapy. Each session begins with the Pledge of Allegiance and ends with everyone joining hands singing "I'm Proud to be an American," led by singer-songwriter and Vietnam veteran Joe Klass, 60, of Kenosha playing his guitar.

Brightly colored service banners adorn the walls -- 1st Cavalry Division, Airborne, Seabees. Some veterans wear service caps -- Korea, USS Princeton -- others their Purple Hearts. Some have breathing tubes and move about in electric scooters.

In the room is a small stage. Behind that is a display with military equipment from various eras -- a desert-war era helmet perched on an M-4 rifle; jungle warfare boots and knapsacks from Vietnam. There is an honor bell on the wall, and next to it is a plaque listing the names -- about 70 -- of "fallen heroes" in the unit who died from PTSD.

"Who has art, poems and music to share?" Bair calls out. Jennifer Tario, 32, walks to the stage. She travels regularly from McHenry to sing and read her poetry, which is inspired by her experiences as a boatswain's mate in the Navy -- at sea three years in demanding jobs onboard a submarine tender and aircraft carrier supporting the war in Afghanistan -- and dealing with a related condition called Military Sexual Trauma. …