Art Therapy; A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Last night Jo and I watched a doco on BBC2 called Culture Show Special; Art for Heroes. It focused on a group of men, returned war veterans from Vietnam, the Falklands, the first gulf war, Bosnia etc., who, many years after their return were identified as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now the men featured in this story were a group of pretty dedicated, tough, professional soldiers. Commonly, after they got out of the armed services their lives fell apart. Failed marriages and dysfunctional relationships, alcoholism, drug abuse the inability to keep jobs and images in their minds that did and still can tip them over the edge. The British government, it appears, is pretty good at sending men and women off to war and bragging about it in the media but looking after them when they come back in an unusable condition is another matter. (We were also fortunate enough to watch two hours of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel making their memorable last album together in 1970, Bridge Over Troubled Waters.)

The writer and interviewer on this program spends time with these men as they share parts of their war experiences, the memories of war that make no sense, and witnesses their attempts to heal the 'Invisible Wounds' by expressing their inner selves through art. Art Therapy, as it is known, has become an important part of the treatment of this PTS disorder world wide. Concerned professionals also predict that with the type of warfare now taking place in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East, that there will be a sudden increase in PTSD as veterans come to terms with seeing their mates reduced to a bloodstain in front of their eyes and the maiming of innocent women and children through what is so easily described by politicians as collateral damage.

Back in the sixties, as a sixteen year old, there was one month when I urgently checked the letter box every day. It was the time of conscription in Australia and every male turning seventeen years old was eligible for call up by way of the birthday ballot system. I was a regular Australian teenager. Working in a bank, I had a girlfriend called Vicki, I played rugby league, went surfing, absolutely loved music and hanging out with my mates. In those days I wasn't too scared of much or anybody but there was no way I could see myself with a crewcut and a gun jumping out of helicopters and killing people who I'd never met and had never done me or my family any wrong. Needless to say that I didn't feature as a winner in this ballot, otherwise I doubt whether I'd be here writing this blog now. My cousin Alfie Woolley did. I think he was the 500th Australian to die in Vietnam, two weeks before he was to return home from his tour of Vietnam and three months after I missed having my date drawn out in the draft.

Roll of Honour - Ivan Alfred Woolley

Service number: A118435
Rank: Aircraftman
Unit: 2 Squadron
Service: Royal Australian Air Force
Conflict: Vietnam, 1962-1975
Date of death: 11 December 1969
Place of death: Near Phan Rang Air Base
Cause of death: Accidental (Motor vehicle accident)
Cemetery or memorial details: Garden of Remembrance, Queensland
Source: AWM153 Roll of Honour cards, Vietnam

At around the same time in 1969 there was a guy in my home town who was a bit of a local hero for me. These days I think you call them role models. His name was Graeme. Graeme was a year or so  older than me. He was small man in stature, but tough, fast, smart, funny, an excellent rugby league player and a really cool looking lad. His birthday came out of the ballot. I remember seeing him in town at the Courthouse Hotel dressed in his army uniform and slouch hat just before he did his first tour of duty in Vietnam. He was so confident about what he was going to do and he looked ready to rock. 

The next time I saw Graeme was at an AA meeting in Beenleigh twelve years later. He looked the same on the outside but inside something was missing. My hero was still tanned and tough and friendly but he talked a lot more. He talked a lot about the war in Vietnam and not much else. Graeme came to AA after he got drunk and shot out the ceiling of his family home  with an AK47 and he was discharged from the army. We became mates again over the next few years going to the football, surfing and doing fun family stuff but his condition visibly deteriorated. 

The last time I saw Graeme was at a rugby league semi-final at ANZ Stadium in Brisbane between the Broncos and the Sharks in 2000. He recognised me in the crowd but I had no idea who he was. His face was red and blotchy, his body slack and bloated, his speech impaired and he had a carer with him. Graeme told me he'd been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He will always be one of my childhood heroes and I only hope I can catch up with him again when I'm back at home.

Recently a mate of mine from Australia sent an email to say that his son-in-law was shot recently while on duty in Afghanistan and three of his Australian mates were killed. I know this guy will get a lot of support from his family and I hope that the invisible scars are also dealt with to help him continue with his chosen career as well as enjoy life with his family. These examples just show me that the BBC TV were looking at an issue that is of great importance to these men's lives and something that we need to be aware of and support in any way we possibly can

Below are some websites and videos of the artwork from the BBC 2 documentary. If you are an  artist or have family or friends active in the military I think that they are worth having a look at. If you can access the BBC 2 program online you will have a greater understanding of the difficulties facing these people. There is 'Art for Art's Sake' as the 10cc song goes but Art Therapy goes far beyond that with some fairly interesting pieces of artwork and the documented resultant healing. 

Steve Pratt, ex-British SAS and one hell of a tough guy diagnosed with PTSD is now a working and recognised artist in Europe. He was also involved with the Art for Heroes 'Invisible Wounds' exhibition shown in the BBC 2 special. Steve is now  studying to be an Art Therapist so that he is in a position to make a difference in both of his chosen fields of employment.

Invisible Wounds exhibition

As an added comment to what I found  a very creative and emotive subject, I have made some observations of the young children that I am blessed to work with every week at the asylum seeker's centre near Lausanne. All of these children originate from war torn countries. Many of them have physical scars that they never talk about. I can only imagine what has been done to them and what they have witnessed. But I do often see them react angrily and violently to other kids they are playing with. Some of these kids are obviously very damaged so I always step in on anything I witness and try to talk it through with them with my retarded French. When we have art, music or cooking days with the students from the International School of Lausanne, I notice how much fun these same reactive kids have with their creative projects. There are no fights or aggression. These situations are replaced with harmony and finally pride in their personal achievements. They are totally involved in the process. 

Art therapy? It looks like art therapy but you can call it whatever you like.


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