Wounded Warrior Artists Share Their "Battle Signs" Creations at Medical Museum

By Lauren Bigge
NMHM Public Affairs Coordinator

Four wounded warriors, with their creative art therapist Jacqueline "Jackie" Jones, told visitors at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM) on Aug. 27 about the process of healing through art creation. Their exhibit, "Battle Signs: Using Art Therapy to Process TBI and PTS Injuries and Trauma," is the result of an art therapy program at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital's Intrepid Spirit One (ISO), National Intrepid Center of Excellence satellite. The ISO at Fort Belvoir supports active-duty service members in rehabilitative treatment for traumatic brain injury and psychological health conditions through interdisciplinary treatment. The show's title is reflective of a brain trauma indicator known as "Battle's sign," named for English physician William Henry Battle.

U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Zachary Burgart, Army Sgt. Timothy "Mike" Goodrich, Marine Corps Sgt. Andrew Lavoie (Ret.), and Army Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Meadows (Ret.), shared that working with Jones as they created art transformed their lives. They agreed that the trauma they survived while serving their country left them feeling damaged, angry, and depressed. Burgart, who deployed seven times in 13 years, recalled how he felt after five soldiers were killed in action and others committed suicide.

"I spiraled out of control," he said. "Writing poetry and creating art changed my life." Burgart contributed three pieces to the exhibit: the poem "She is my Girl; Ode to my 40," about his sniper rifle; another poem "A Thousand Colors," and "Untitled," made from a military cratering charge transportation crate.

Processing feelings after serving in the Marine Corps has been a struggle for the retired Lavoie, too. "I felt like a demented, broken person," Lavoie explained. Goodrich assisted him when he was working on the plaster-and-foam sculpture mold of his own face, "Dulce Bellum Inexpertis," which translates to, "War is sweet to those who haven't experienced it."

Jones watched their struggles and used her knowledge gained from her art therapy education to help them along a path of healing through intuitive, spontaneous art making. Through evaluation and observation, she decides what art projects to suggest to her patients to aid in their healing process. "I'm picking up on their gestures, the order of how they're working around the page," she said. "I'm using every piece of information I'm observing."

Goodrich credits Jones with helping him to find a healthy way forward in life. He was initially skeptical when art therapy was recommended for him. Then he saw work created by other veterans. Jones explained that the art therapy process helps to recover memories. So he tried it and found he enjoyed it and it helped. "I was pretty broken before," he said. "It was a breakthrough therapy for me."

Goodrich's contribution to the "Battle Signs" exhibit is the Gadsden Flag entitled "The Old Banners." He explained that the old banners need to be brought back to the light sometimes to remind us of battles fought and blood shed to give birth to the nation we call home.

Meadows complimented Goodrich's work, and said he felt a sense of community by seeing other soldiers in art therapy with the same problems working on their emotions, hopes, and strengths. "In the beginning, I had a really rough time," he explained. Then he found a way to express how he felt in the rapid transition from home life to war zone, by creating the sculpture "Transitions." "Art therapy is a way of letting it go. Having Jackie at Intrepid Spirit One is a godsend."

Jones, both an artist and therapist, contributed two paintings, entitled "The Witness" and "Daddy's Girl." The paintings were based on photographs shared by service members engaged in art therapy.

She and the wounded warriors were excited to see their work on display at NMHM. Meadows and Goodrich said they felt proud hearing that their presentation was helpful to other service members who also struggle. "This is the first national museum where we've been able to really speak about the process," Goodrich said. "That's what makes this special. This medical museum is bringing legitimacy to the fact that art therapy is important to those of us who've had traumatic brain injuries or PTSD. I think we're more than willing to talk to as many people as possible, to make sure this stays available to people like us in the future."

"Battle Signs" also includes two photographs by former Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Ben Stone, "Spare Parts," which are retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Josh Ferguson's expression of being an amputee with a prosthesis made specifically for him. Ferguson produced the "What's Your Pain Today?" vertical rainbow of colors with happy and sad pain scale faces, as well as the three "Modified Pain Scale" canvases: "Comfortably Numb" (how he felt on medication), "Me and My Shadow" (how he felt during a bout of nerve pain), and "The Fix is In" (how he felt while self-medicated). Several works by an anonymous artist are displayed with Burgart's writing, as well.

"The artwork featured here helps tell the story of healing the body, the mind, and the spirit from injuries such as post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury," said Adrianne Noe, Ph.D., NMHM director. "We know that often the best stories are the most personal stories; that's what we have the privilege of sharing with you today."

This temporary exhibit at NMHM will be on display through October 2017. NMHM is an element of the Defense Health Agency Research and Acquisition Directorate. Fort Belvoir Community Hospital is part of the National Capital Region Medical Directorate of the Defense Health Agency.