The following is a guest blog post co-authored by U.S. Air Force veteran, AnnMarie Halterman, who is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Uniting US, and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Ehren Tool. This is the first in a four-part guest series featuring military veteran artists who are members of Uniting US, a veteran-focused nonprofit arts organization. In recognition of June as Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) Awareness month, Uniting US is collaborating with the Veterans History Project (VHP) for “From Conflict to Creativity: Veteran Artists Showcase,” June 28-30, 2022 at the Library of Congress and online. Watch it here.
Peace is a journey of a thousand miles, and it must be taken one step at a time. –Lyndon B. Johnson
Looking back, my journey to the Library of Congress started decades ago, and I could have never predicted the twists and turns that led me up the marble stairs of our nation’s most rich and diverse collections of millions of meaningful items. Let me back up a bit to explain how I and the other Uniting US artists got here—days away from co-hosting a three-day Veteran Artists Showcase.
Raised in a very small, rural farm community in Wisconsin, my awareness of military service was limited to school history books. I never saw a military base or people in uniform, so the brave and courageous veterans living in my community were camouflaged to my naive eyes. My decision to pursue collegiate basketball and study at the Air Force Academy was where my connection to the military begins. Little did I realize how sheltered my life had been.
Joining the military expanded my horizons and fueled my curiosity about the vast lands and diverse cultures around the world. But more importantly, the patience and leadership of those I served with was remarkable. I saw the best technicians, expert problem solvers and innovative solutions created on the fly to overcome limited assets and equipment in the field.
Equally important, I recall my first experience with the artistic talents (and value) of service members. During downtime, in a high stress deployment, I watched a young airman sketch on a 6-foot, paper thin, field tent partition wall an incredibly detailed warrior who was dressed for battle with magnificent weapons and a fierce stance. I saw another team member play his guitar during downtime while others gathered around the familiar music, singing and picking the next songs. In retrospect, those memories are examples of creativity during conflict. These are rare moments when trust and understanding are built throughout our small team.
I sat on the fringe, witnessing the connection between artistic creativity and stress relief for the artist and those in the same space. I couldn’t fully understand all the related benefits of this connection until 2015, when I began seeking mental health services. My psychiatrist asked me every week, “What do you feel and where?” during the hour-long appointment. In my 54th week, and in complete frustration, I said,
I feel like a broken bicycle in 1,000 pieces, and even if I had all the pieces and put them back together again, my square wheels do not allow me to ride that bike!
For the next six months, work began to create the bike artistically, and the result was my first ever piece of art, Square Wheels.
My service came to an end in 2002, after I was injured during my last deployment. I thought my biggest challenge transitioning back into civilian life was going to be finding meaningful employment. And while that was a stressful part of transition, my real life-threatening challenge was wrapped up in my acceptance and willingness to address my own service-connected injuries and trauma.
Ultimately, this is where the rubber meets the road in my journey. I have not shared some very personal aspects of my healing and transition out of the military, but standing at the Library door, it’s time to cut the ugly. It’s time to embrace the hard fought freedom of breaking through my self-imposed limitations to seek medical support related to mental health injuries, and rise above the absolute non-support of some people around me.
After years of avoidance, I reached a point where my PTS and other injuries shrank my world from one of travel and adventure to the very limited “comfort” of home. Eventually, I came to a fork in the road: continue down the path to guaranteed death, or attempt to overcome my fear and seek help. While medical support is important, I have found the most profound progress in my “awakening” has been the conversations with other veterans as they share their experiences and insight.
As others share their personal stories and creative approach to find relief, I find meaningful connections with them that remove the fear and ridicule of social judgment. Art gives me the capacity to move past my stoicism, and brings a solution to bypass the tribulations and elevate my ability to communicate beyond merely words. Art provides an outlet to develop my narrative and an accompaniment of others to inspire a revolution.
One form of artistic expression that not only brings me relief, but unimaginable joy, is that of song writing. Square Wheels is one of 12 songs I wrote which speaks to the importance of connection as we make our way through life. It serves to remind us that we are not alone! I had such an incredible experience writing this song with Georgia Middleman and the organization SongwritingWith:Soldiers.
In meeting veterans like Ehren Tool, whom you will hear from below, I witness the profound and widespread response to art making, viewing and interactions where people openly share stories and explore the meaning and purpose in life. I love Ehren’s atypical approach, and I ask Tiffany to consider our life and our purpose as we raise our children. We are inspired to walk away from the traditional lifestyle of employment and the pressure of social status expectations. We are full-time volunteers and build arts programming with the intention of bringing people, communities and organizations together while empowering voices, seeking meaning and purposely harnessing the value of art’s healing, uniting powers.
In the formulating and early years of Uniting US, Tiffany and I have met courageous artists and community members like Jara Fatout Lang, Duane Guatier and Lou Celli, and programs like VHP, Quilts of Honor and many, many more whose daily choices promote understanding through personal experiences, and offer arts and other engaging opportunities for people to be active contributors to a more united nation. I am honored to stand with the most inspirational visionaries, community leaders and innovative companies as we enter the doors, and soon the permanent collections, of the majestic Library of Congress.
I am so excited about this part of my journey, and know that this is one of the most meaningful stops I will make along the way.
The military used to be called “The Service.” I joined the Marine Corps in 1989 to be of service. After serving as a Military Police (MP) with 1st Marine Division in Desert Shield, Desert Storm and an Embassy Guard in Rome and Paris, I decided I could be of more service without a firearm.
I used my G.I. Bill benefit to take classes at a community college. I was looking for a way to serve that fit my interests. I have to say finding that thing was harder than I imagined, and I kind of stumbled into it. There is something about ceramics that resonates with me.
Clay is immediate and responsive until it goes through the fire. Once it has gone through the fire it will last 500,000 to 1,000,000 years. I think clay is a good material to use to talk about war and other things that happen quickly and have lasting consequences. This is what drew me to clay, but it is the community which has kept me.
The clay community gave me a way to come home and find purpose. So much of our society is only concerned with money.
People love things and use people; our society has it backwards.
My time in the Marine Corps was the closest experience to the rhetoric of America. I served with folks from every background. We could train together, fight together, die together and be buried together, but there is no place in the country where we can all live together.
I started making cups thinking the cups were important. What is really important are the conversations and community built around the cups. I’ve made more than 25,000 cups since 2001. I hope I can make at least that many more.
An Irish bartender told me, “A burden shared is a burden halved.”
My father and grandfather didn’t talk about their wars until I came home from mine.
I think folks believe veterans are bragging when they wear “vet swag.” I believe when we wear things that identify us as connected to the military, it is more about trying to find each other. I don’t understand how we could be so close while serving, and so distant when we come home. My hope is that by building community and healing through the arts within the veteran community, we can extend that into the communities veterans come from. I just make cups. Even if that is all I have done, I hope it is of some service.
VHP and Uniting US invite you to use the arts to find inspiration. Consider writing a book or a song, taking a painting class or going dancing! Subscribe to Folklife Today to read future posts in this guest series, as well as other enlightening articles about folklife and veterans. Learn more about Uniting US, or sign-up as a veteran-artist or family member at unitingus.org. Access the daily schedule and free registration details for “From Conflict to Creativity: Veteran Artists Showcase” at loc.gov/vets/news/. Go here to find out how to share a veteran’s story with VHP.