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Healing Through Art: PTSD Survival Stories

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"Fallujah" is the first opera on the Iraq War. Artbound documentary "Fallujah: Art, Healing, and PTSD" explores how the experience of war was transformed into a work of art. Watch the episode's debut Tuesday, May 24 at 9 p.m., or check for rebroadcasts here.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder -- an intense anxiety disorder, triggered by severe emotional trauma -- is alarmingly apparent in young men and women who have endured the ravages of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, “Art therapists have reported remarkable results from work with combat veterans,” explains “The Journal of the American Art Therapy Association,” adding, “theorists have identified psychological and neurological mechanisms that explain the unique capacities of art therapy to promote recovery from PTSD.” 

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs further states, “Research on veterans suggests that 10 percent to 18 percent are likely to have PTSD,” which was officially recognized as a diagnosis in 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association. And non-profit Stop Soldier Suicide explains, “Every day 22 plus veterans and one active duty soldier take their own lives. Burdened with the stigma associated with mental health issues and the military “shame” surrounding PTSD, they instead turn to suicide as their only option to relieve suffering.” 

Beyond talk therapy, group therapy and excessive medication, the American Art Therapy Association offers a more enlightened approach: “Art therapy shows promise as a means of treating hard-to-treat symptoms of combat-related PTSD, such as avoidance and emotional numbing, while also addressing the underlying psychological situation that gives rise to these symptoms.”

Jon Harguindeguy art
A painting by Jon Harguindeguy.

Many Iraq War veterans have been able to confront their own war-related demons by engaging in the creative process. They have in turn helped generate soul-stirring plays, visual art pieces and recently the opera, “Fallujah,” performed by Long Beach Opera at the Army National Guard Long Beach Armory in March. This opera had its genesis when Iraq War veteran Christian Ellis shared his war and PTSD experiences with Iraqi-American writer Heather Raffo. With these dialogues as background and inspiration, she created the “Fallujah” libretto, a true-to-life story about mothers and sons who are searching for meaning in life and for deeper connections with each other during and after involvement in the War.

Along with the compelling story and innovative score, combining Middle Eastern melodies with American pop, the production included images of the war projected onto the armory stage. Among the Iraq War veterans/PTSD survivors who worked on those images were Michael Hebert who fought in Fallujah, and Jon Harguindeguy who counsels other veterans through the “Awaken Arts” therapy program at the Long Beach VA Hospital.

Harguindeguy, 31, described himself as having grown-up normal and happy in Santa Fe Springs, CA. He took art classes in high school, and was into punk rock, tattoo culture and especially into graffiti, spray-painting walls and underpasses all over L.A. After high school, he joined the navy and was sent to Iraq in 2007. As a troubleshooter on the “flight line,” he was in an extremely high stress environment. With symptoms of a heart attack, he was sent to the E.R. and ended up spending eight long hours there, eventually receiving the diagnosis of acid reflux. “While there, I saw and heard everything that came through,” he said, a continuous parade of severely injured, bloodied people, punctuated by screaming and moaning. While he was not in active combat, he saw war’s devastating effects firsthand in the E.R. “That was the most traumatic experience I have ever had,” he said. It also signaled the beginning of his PTSD.

Jon Harguindeguy and Michael Hebert at the "Fallujah" set
Jon Harguindeguy, left, and Michael Hebert, right, at the "Fallujah" set, 2016.

Harguindeguy stayed in Iraq for another five months. “I came home in 2008 and started drinking heavily. I got fired from jobs, and my father’s death in 2009 drove me further to the bottle. In 2011, my mom gave me the ultimatum: ‘Sober up or get out.’ I kicked drinking cold turkey and began seeing a psychiatrist and psychologist, was diagnosed with PTSD, and put on medication.”

In 2013, he heard about Awaken Arts at the VA hospital and became what he called a “guinea pig” for the new art therapy program. By using the visual arts instead of talking to describe his distress, “I put a face on my trauma and began to understand my emotions,” he said. Discussing his painting, “Let Go,” he explained, “I was just getting into sobriety and needed to represent all that fueled my alcoholism leaving my body. It was the pain, hate, anger, guilt, and depression that I dragged back from my time in service being released through a final scream.” After completing the program, Harguindeguy began working with Awaken Arts as a volunteer therapist; he has since then helped several dozen vets -- including a few guys who fought in Vietnam and one 93-year-old World War II veteran -- heal themselves through the visual arts, drumming and writing therapy. 

Harguindeguy is attending Cerritos College, majoring in art, planning to receive his BFA, and then his masters degree in art therapy. By acknowledging his war related trauma and by channeling his experiences into creative projects, Jon Harguindeguy has found his mission in helping others with similar problems heal themselves through the arts. “Awaken Arts is eternal bliss,” he said.

Jon Harguindeguy art
A painting by Jon Harguindeguy.

“The Sand Storm: Stories From the Front,” by Louisiana native and L.A. transplant Sean Huze, recounts war atrocities as told by 10 Iraq War veterans. Huze, who found his own art therapy through his playwriting, wrote for the play’s premiere: “Amidst all the controversy surrounding the Iraq War, there is a story that remains untold. ’The Sand Storm’ is based on the war as experienced by Marines of the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. Their accounts of war, related in 10 chilling monologues, expose the rage, honor, courage, commitment, doubt, fear and remorse experienced by the men who dutifully followed their orders and accomplished every mission they were assigned. These men earned the name of “Destroyers” from the opposition and "were among the most feared units the Iraqis encountered.”

Huze was born in 1975 in Greenwood, Mississippi, had starring roles in high school plays and attended North Carolina School of the Arts and the University of Louisiana. In 1999 at age 24, he drove to L.A. to pursue acting and soon had small roles on television. Two years later 9/11 occurred. The next day, he walked into the Hollywood Recruiting Station and joined the United States Marine Corps. 

Sixteen months later, Huze was sent to Iraq where he experienced unimaginable violence. Honorably discharged in 2005, he began having debilitating headaches related to war injuries. When he subsequently concluded that the war was unjustified, he found the pain of betrayal and his PTSD even harder to deal with. “Many civilians lost their lives and were considered collateral damage during the Shock and Awe bombing campaign, deaths that at the hands of U.S. forces were unintentional. I was overwhelmed by rage, guilt, and depression.” He started pouring his heart out in a journal, which became the basis for “The Sandstorm.” 

Sean Huze, "The Sandstorm" promotional poster
Sean Huze, "The Sandstorm" promotional poster.

Huze explained: “PTSD is not directly addressed in the play. But its indirect presence is undeniable as the characters share their experiences, mourn the brothers lost, and how they feel about the lives they took. Some are unapologetic; others offer justifications, while most express remorse and guilt, not for their enemies, but specifically over the civilian casualties of war. Many civilians were unwilling human shields for Saddam’s regular Iraqi forces or insurgent groups.” 

“The Sandstorm” premiered in Los Angeles in 2005 at Theatre Asylum, and was performed at MetroStage in the Washington D.C. area, in New York City, as a radio-play in Germany and in several other venues, often receiving positive reviews. Huze continued to act in films while advocating for veterans’ rights, better access to mental health services and creative outlets for veterans. All the while, he was healing himself through his writing, acting and anti-war activism, including an appearance with actor Robin Williams.

While Huze’s work is explicit and even bombastic, Joe DeVera’s assemblages and installations are quietly philosophical, as is the artist himself. His military experiences, commenced at a young age, became an intrinsic part of his persona and of his artwork, and may have contributed to his quiet resolve. He explained that, while he has not yet wanted to be diagnosed with PTSD for personal reasons, he has had symptoms of this disorder. 

Joe DeVera, "Beast of Burden"
Joe DeVera, "Beast of Burden," 2014. Cardboard boxes, old furniture, other people’s artwork, parachute material. | Photo: Evan Whale.

DeVera moved to the United States from the Philippines at age seven and enjoyed expressing himself in drawing from an early age. He joined the Marine Corps just out of high school in 2001. At age 19, his unit was preparing to invade Iraq, landing there in January 2003. When asked what it felt like to be engaged in fierce combat there, he responded, “It was surreal. I couldn’t comprehend what was going on. I felt like I was in a movie.” He spent seven months there, returning in 2007. “The second time was even more terrifying because I was aware of my mortality,” he said. 

Home from Iraq, emotionally scarred from his war experiences, DeVera enrolled in Cal State Fullerton’s studio art program. At first, he just went to classes and then went directly home. “I had insomnia and anything would set me off.” He also saw a counselor on and off for a few years, discussing his discomfort at being home and desire to integrate back into society. His slow healing enabled him to look beyond his war memories, to consider a more universal perspective in his art making. “I started taking a multilateral approach to art -- investigating the relationship of art to war, trauma, catastrophic events and to history.” 

DeVera received a BFA from Fullerton in 2010, going on to receive his MFA from Yale University in 2014. At Yale, he continued his journey of using art to understand and transform his traumatic war experiences, and began creating assemblage works from found objects and military surplus materials.

Joe DeVera, "Wreck"
Joe DeVera, "Wreck," 2014. Wood, sails, rope, printed transfers, oil on canvas, found material.

In 2015, DeVera constructed a large assemblage installation in an abandoned structure in Joshua Tree. The life-size animal-like creatures, carved wood structures, a topographical map paintings of government documents, scattered nuts and bolts, and more were assembled in the dusty structure with the dessert wind blowing in; they told of an artist who finds solace by working with detritus, while allowing the materials to influence his artwork. His latest art projects include taking elements from that installation and reconstructing them; creating small oil paintings, often with military themes; and curating an exhibition on and by veterans for Santa Ana College Gallery for Veterans Day 2016. DeVera’s young life has been so filled with conflict and horrors that making art has become for him an inward journey of discovery that is as important as are his conceptually oriented art pieces. 

By confronting their inner demons and memories of the War in Iraq, Harguindeguy, Huze and DeVera are creating artworks that are helping to build greater understanding of war and of its pervasive fallout. 

Writers too have channeled their experiences of war into words. The War in Vietnam has spawned books, plays, movies and all manner of art about the participants’ experiences, helping them process the aftermath of the fierce conflicts they faced. Among the most notable are the book, “Born on the Fourth of July” by Ron Kovic, and movie of the same name, produced by Oliver Stone. His 1989 film adaptation of the book, co-written with Kovic, is about an American soldier who went to Vietnam with great idealism and returned home damaged psychologically and physically; and he healed his PTSD in part by writing about his war experiences. In the introduction to the book’s re-release, Kovic wrote: “I couldn’t stop writing, and I remember feeling more alive than I had ever felt… I struggled to leave something of meaning behind, to rise above the darkness and despair… I wanted to share with them as nakedly and openly and intimately as possible what I had gone through, what I had endured.” 

Joe DeVera, "34 13’ 59” N 116 25’ 00.9 W" art installation
Joe DeVera, installation view of "34° 13' 59" N 116° 25' 00.9" W."

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