New Project Hopes to Help Vets Talk, Get the Public to Listen | WBEZ
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New Project Hopes to Help Vets Talk, Get the Public to Listen

A lot of soldiers say war is hell, and then, they won't say anything else. That wasn't good enough for one west suburban playwright. She's created a new collaboration called the Vet Art Project. It brings veterans and artists together to make art out of  war. The group's vision is a big one: it aims to be a national model for how veterans can tell their stories and get the public to listen.

About a dozen people sit in a circle at the Chicago Cultural Center. Several are local playwrights, poets and painters.  The rest are men who've been to war.

In the middle, there's a box of Kleenex, some cough drops and M&Ms. It can hurt to turn war stories into art.

CRIST: So we went out on our first mission....

Vietnam vet Bill Crist starts out.

CRIST: That's when my first buddy got killed in an ambush. I was a pacifist myself. I was praying I never had to pull the trigger. But after that happened, I did a 180. I volunteered for every patrol I could go on.

Crist was hit by shrapnel from two grenades. But he made it home.  And he thought he could fit right in.

CRIST: And that wasn't the case. I felt distant, pure lack of trust. I went over to my one buddy's house. He had a little welcome home party after my parents. And without even thinking, I says, hey, do you guys get a lot of rocket or mortar attacks around here?
PING: Coming back is one of the strangest things I'll ever go through in my life, I'm sure.

Matt Ping sits across the circle from Crist. He's a young vet who served in Afghanistan.

PING: That transition from 16 months of isolation on the side of a mountain, and being secluded from American society and American people and then coming back and trying to be the same person you were before, it's really -- I don't know if it's even possible.

A recent study by the Rand Corporation found that nearly 20 percent of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or depression. Only half, seek treatment.

Ping says part of the problem is Americans don't seem to know or care about the war or its soldiers. He recalls being in Afghanistan, in the thick of it, and soldiers not being able to reach anxious family members.

PING: And that's probably why the suicide rates are so high, because that's the easiest out. I mean, I'm not gonna lie. I sat there with a barrel of a gun in my mouth, thinking about pulling the trigger more than once. And you know I'm glad I didn't because I was just in an altered state at the time.

(NAT: DO YOU GUYS HAVE ANYONE YOU CAN TALK TO....)

The curly-haired woman leading the group nods in sympathy. There are a few teary eyes.

The stories of war eventually wind down.

NAT: Why don't we move to the other side of the room?

The group moves over to a table covered with paper and glue to make collages that reflect the stories they just heard.

The inaugural month of the Vet Art Project included art activities and talks like this. It drew roughly 25 vets and 50 artists, and the number keeps growing.

Lisa Rosenthal is the playwright behind it all. She says she got the idea after hearing an interview about the healing process for vets.

ROSENTHAL: In order to heal, veterans need to talk. They need to talk to a therapist. They need to talk to a peer group, in a peer group setting, but they also need to share their stories with the community. And I thought, artists can build that bridge between the veterans and the community.

It's a bridge constructed of images and words drawn from sometimes reluctant war veterans, says art therapist Suellen Semekoski.

SEMEKOSKI: They don't want to cause any more suffering. They don't want to contaminate the people they love with their stories of horror and suffering. They want the suffering to stop, and they hold it all themselves.

Semekoski, who teaches art therapy at the School of the Art Institute, says art can help calm vets and offer an indirect and safe way to share painful memories.

Some of the veterans in the project, like Matt Ping, wrote their own songs, and poems. Others, like Bill Crist, told their stories and collaborated with writers, who created plays.

NAT OF LILA READING STAGE DIRECTIONS: In darkness, Cliff falls center stage.

It's the first read-through with the actors in Crist's play. Director Lila Stromer asks him to tell about the day his buddy, Cliff, stepped on a landmine.

CRIST: So I was going to grab him and pull him back in the grass, until I looked down. He was so full of holes and blood, that I honestly thought he was going to pull in half if I tried to drag him. So instead, I stayed out there with him. As I washed the blood off his face, I saw his eye hanging out of the socket, and I just happened to have that medical pack on me, so I took it, and I just remember putting his eye back in the socket.

Actors Ray Ready and Joe Lehman turn back to the script.

READY AS CLIFF: My face, my face is on fire.
LEHMAN AS YOUNG BILL:  It's OK, Cliff, it's me Bill, you're not alone.

Vets like Crist who take part in this project are watching and hearing their worst memories being replayed.

CRIST: If I start talking about some things, it's like I just see through a wall. I see it actually happening again, right on the spot, not a flashback, but a flash movie.

He says he's going through this because he wants people to know how war affects the mind, and that it happens to real people. But he's surprised to find the telling, and re-telling, has helped him too.

CRIST: They make things a lot more livable for me. I've noticed things have loosened up a little bit for me, coming here and talking to them.

It's not just people who've been to war who need a creative outlet. Nancy Ronquillo is the mother and wife of soldiers.

Her son, Matt, was on the invasion force in Iraq. Ronquillo says he came home depressed and broken. Four months later, he died in a car crash with his military buddy. She thinks the soldiers were used to Iraq, where they had to speed to avoid rockets.

RONQUILLO: My son's name won't be on a granite wall or the driver of the car because he didn't die in the battlefield. But I am sure he died of battle wounds. They were invisible, they were psychic injuries, but I know why he couldn't face life any longer.

Nat of rosenthal talking with ronquillo about art

Ronquillo says she survived by telling Matt's story in essays. Her words inspired artists here to create modern dance and a painting.

RONQUILLO: When I struggle with the fact Matt's not alive, what I want is Matt's spirit in the world. And if Matt's spirit can be here healing, then I'm really happy about that.

Nat of final show crowd

Ronquillo gets her first glimpse of the painting at the vet project's final show. The words of her essay are the background for portraits of grieving women from around the world. She hugs the artists.

RONQUILLO: It is so beautiful.
ARTISTS: Did you recognize it?
RONQUILLO: I was like (gasp). Totally, totally blown away, you have done an incredible job.

The Vet Art Project's Lisa Rosenthal wants moments like this, to happen across the country. She's writing a guide so other cities can replicate the experience.

It's far from over in Chicago. More vets are calling, wanting to tell their stories. A few VA centers have requested workshops.

Some collaborations continue, like that of Matt Ping and his fellow musicians.

They performed his songs about war at the final show and want to keep playing together.

Ping is so excited after the show, he's almost giddy. He says he still feels isolated at times. But creating art gives him a break. It lets him forget everything, for a while.

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