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From Conflict to Creativity: The Journeys of Matthew Gill and Teresa K. Howes

The following is a guest blog post co-authored by U.S. Navy veteran Matthew Gill and U.S. Army/Army National Guard veteran Teresa K. Howes. This is the second in a four-part guest series featuring military veteran artists who are members of Uniting US, a veteran-focused nonprofit arts organization. Go here to read part 1. 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.

Matthew Gill

man seated in wheelchar singing next to a podium

Screen grab of Matthew Gill singing “The National Anthem,” 2021. Image courtesy of Uniting US.

My steps from conflict to creativity actually started with creativity in Lexington, Kentucky. I started singing in church at a very young age. I sang in various young adult singing groups and gospel choirs throughout high school and college, and took some music courses while working toward my Bachelor’s in political science at Centre College of Kentucky. I was blessed with so many unforgettable opportunities over the years! I sang with an all nation youth choir that was in concert at Carnegie Hall and toured Europe. I got to be the junior musical Director of the Central Kentucky Gospel Choir, where I directed the choir while in concert with gospel legend James Cleveland. I was featured as a soloist on the Christian Singers of Porter Memorial Baptist Church album. I served as the premier entertainment during a 30-minute slot at the Jane Morton Norton Regional Arts Centre. I had the honor of being part of a small ensemble that sung back-up for Pearl Bailey when she toured Central Kentucky. I was also part of the Rainbow Coalition Choir that backed up Jesse Jackson’s weekly televised international address.

After college, I received a commission as a United States Naval Officer. My initial training was Naval Education and Training Command (NETC) in Newport, Rhode Island, and my first job was as the communications signals division officer aboard the USS Saratoga CV 60 out of Mayport, Florida. My following billets included communication security custodian and anti-aviation officer. My next ship was the USS Vogie FF 1047, where I was the electron material officer, the operations department head and finally the executive officer. My final tour of duty was as the associate professor of naval science at Savannah State College and Armstrong State College, where I was responsible for military orientation and indoctrination classes, naval administration writing courses and NROTC scholarship officer candidate recruitment.

Man and woman sitting outsite in wheelchairs holding hands

Matthew Gill and his wife, April, at Arlington National Cemetery and Military Women’s Memorial. Photo courtesy of AnnMarie Halterman.

Upon resignation of my commission and being honorably discharged from the Navy, I developed a number of disabilities. While learning about and attempting to recover from these mental and physical challenges, I lost the desire to perform (and almost the desire to live.) As an inpatient in the VA hospital in Chicago, Illinois, I was made aware of a musical therapy program that was available for veterans. One day while participating in class, the therapist told me that I should be doing more singing because it would be therapeutic. Under her tutelage, I sought to recover the desire to sing again. During this time, I also learned about the national veterans’ creative arts competition. I signed up to compete and won gold, silver and bronze medals and performed on stage for a televised creative arts novelty show.

group of people holding up colorful handmade quilts

Matthew Gill (front, center) holding a quilt from Quilts of Honor. Photo courtesy of AnnMarie Halterman.

On Veterans Day of 2018, I was hit by a car and paralyzed from my diaphragm down through my legs. I lost the desire to sing and, once more, almost lost the desire to live because of the unique challenges and hardships that the accident left me with. Thanks to my wife and the spirituality and arts choir director of Washington DC VA Medical Center Chaplain Jones’ support, encouragement and prayer, I started learning to sing again. They helped me regain some of my diaphragmatic breath control and introduced me to AnnMarie Halterman and the Uniting US arts opportunity.

Being part of this organization has given me a new reason to take a breath every day, and to do more than just exist.

Now I perform my art not only as recovery for me, but also for the pleasure to those who would listen.

Teresa K. Howes

woman leaning over to listen to her dog

Teresa Howes and K9 Service Animal Chloe, 2019. Photo courtesy of Teresa K. Howes.

Out of sheer desperation to quell loneliness and isolation in 2019, I cold-call, out-of-the-blue, someone who actually answers her phone, “Hello.”  It is how I begin the journey from conflict to creativity.

I nearly drop the phone. I am stunned that someone answered.

“Hello. Hello . . . is this AnnMarie?” I cautiously ask.

There is need to connect, converse about heavy stuff that no one wants to converse about. Dignity, respect in artistic curiosity and conversation are silk threads weaving this journey. Together we get better and are better—this is Uniting US.

handmade lady's tea hat with white feathers and golden decorations

Handmade replica 1915 Edwardian Hat used as Teresa Howes’ reminder there is much good in the world, and she is part of it, Alaska, 2012. Photo courtesy of Teresa K. Howes.

In the desert, I sit with a curved needle between my fingers. Attaching egret feathers to a hat gives my brain pause to journey from conflict to creativity. It lessens the growing chemical reactions in my body as the exposure to trauma increases.

servicemember in uniform and protective gear standing in the desert

Capt. Teresa K. Howes in uniform, Operation Iraqi Freedom II, Kuwait, 2004. Image courtesy of Teresa K. Howes.

I stand outside my tent in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. This is the largest surge of U.S. Forces since World War II. It is an imminent danger zone in 2004. Aged 40 in the cradle of civilization, I’ve lived to 100 in this 18 years of service. I’m a woman in a combat arms unit that conducts several non-standard missions—this includes Force Protection: security measures analysis and training of military forces.

man seated playing guitar

Teresa Howes’ husband, Floyd Chris Howes, playing guitar and singing, Julesburg, Colorado, 2017. Photo courtesy of Teresa K. Howes.

From private E-1 to captain in the military, the overall 21-year journey presented endurance, camaraderie, discipline, candor, strength and love. My marriage partner is the artist in our family. I love soldiering and serving. My husband works very hard at learning the military lifestyle. At first, he said, “Women do not belong in the military.” Needless to say: “He’s come a long way, Baby.”

Simultaneously, I manage a civilian life: GS-5 to GS-14—mid stride during military and civilian careers, my husband and I make the mind-numbing decision to let go of where life’s creation begins—my uterus. A significant trauma. When the uterus is chalked full of endometriosis (precancerous cysts) a woman is non deployable by U.S. Army regulation.

Military and civilian careers took me to nearly every state in the union, Germany when “The Wall” fell and Kuwait.

woman touching a Mariana Fruit Bat hanging on a fence

Teresa Howes with an endangered Mariana Fruit Bat—the Flying Fox. Guam, 2003. Photo courtesy of Teresa K. Howes.

I’ve roamed with bison in Yellowstone National Park, stared eyeball to eyeball with coyotes in Utah, held hands with a Mariana Fruit Bat in Guam and made human friends. Similar numerous experiences inexplicably shape my creativity and hone my service to freedom. From conflict to creativity, my body, mind and spirit demand the art or skill of finding something good in myself and others.

Frankly, during war—conflict explodes around me like an unexploded ordnance (UXO) that detonates unexpectedly every damn day.

woman in white lace tea dress and white feathered hat, holding a saucer and cup of tea

Teresa Howes wearing the vintage tea dress her friends sent and her handmade 1915 replica Edwardian hat, Kuwait, 2004. Photo courtesy of Teresa K. Howes.

The military sexual trauma (MST), post-traumatic stress (PTS), and Multiple Sclerosis (MS) influence me to design and hand-stitch an Edwardian Hat. The curved needle is a tool to carefully stitch together something good during “down” time. Some soldiers play cards, watch movies or play softball—I repurpose wearable fiber art.

A care package arrives from Coloradoan friends. It contains the tools to create: scissors, thread, needles, egret feathers, vintage lace, beads and an original 1915 vintage tea gown. In contrast, my world at the time contains the tools of war: pistol, holster, leatherman, desert uniform, cap, brown t-shirt, combat boots, dog tags, protective vest, portable toilets, etc. The completed hat creates what I consider a M*A*S*H (the 1970’s sitcom about the Korean War) moment. It generates some laughter and lightheartedness for a moment of connection.

Today, through evolving multi medium artistic curiosity, I purposely move toward PTS growth. I make friends with the central nervous system disease, MS, and maintain sobriety from alcohol as I immerse myself into creative nonfiction writing like, Sometimes People Just Don’t Know, hanging in Uniting US/Warriors Write Dulles International Airport Exhibit, and Two Wise Women at Pikes Peak Community College Parlay Sit Rep. Lyric songwriting, photography, public speaking, life-long learning and simply connecting with others in their VHP interviews is the art now. This all moves me forward in a collaborative journey: Uniting Us, Library of Congress, Veterans History Project, Warriors Write, Heart J Center for Experiential Learning at Sylvan Dale Ranch and so many more.

woman in hospital gown sitting on hosptial bed with service dog

Teresa Howes spending New Year’s Day in hospital bed with service animal Chloe nearby, Colorado, 2022. Photo courtesy of Teresa K. Howes.

At times I re-experience and wretch. The overwhelming monotony, heat, desert air/burn pit particulates, intense trauma and stress of living and surviving in a combat operations zone—where no bullets came my way—cause damage.

When both my husband and I connect with military peeps we feel safe in our journey. We honor loss and grief by crafting songs with SongwritingWith: Soldiers—Strong and Home Brewed Pain. Then, more than a year ago, Uniting US gathered a few veteran brothers and sisters together. We cried, laughed and paused through writing a song with professional songwriters of SongwritingWith:Soldiers, The Good Side’s Winning.

man, woman and dog in front of textile art display and U.S. flag

Teresa Howes with husband Floyd and service dog Chloe, as they honor and celebrate Women in Military Service by connecting through their art, Alaska Veterans Administration, November, 2015. Photo courtesy of Teresa K. Howes.

Each extraordinary experience of connection from weaving a hat to painting stories through writing and song offers flight into the journey from conflict to creativity, landing me/us at the Library of Congress Veterans History Project—by the people, for the people, of the people.

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.

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