Photo of a sculpture of a wall splitting two worlds. On the left is home, depicting a peaceful family playing joyfully with their dog. On the right is a soldier charging valiantly into the chaos of the war zone

Creating Battle Signs: Iraq/Afghanistan War Veterans, Art Therapy, and Rehabilitation

During my first research trip to the National Archives in College Park I stayed with my family in Lorton, Virginia just outside Washington, D.C. Every morning I drove past Fort Belvoir, a large and seemingly endless military base with its own school system and stores, and wondered what the inner workings were like. All I knew was that it was massive. A year later, on my second trip to the archives, I made a detour to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, which happened to have an art therapy exhibit from veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The art therapy program was held at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Here, I got a peek at what was happening inside the military base through this rehabilitation program.

Called “Battle Signs,” the exhibit about the art therapy program was meant to help soldiers of modern wars who suffered from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). According to the exhibit, both group and individual sessions promote self-expression and processing, leading “to a greater ability to experience positive emotions and an improved quality of life.”1

While not all the artwork was utilized in the exhibit, the ones on display at the NMHM were truly powerful and reflect some of the struggles of returning from a highly stressful war zone and the societal expectations placed on veterans to conform to normative standards of civilian life.

While the National Museum of Health and Medicine had many fascinating and important exhibits, “Battle Signs” kept drawing my attention. I was captivated because it was just one example in a longer history of using art to rehabilitate disabled veterans, and as a scholar of the subject, seeing it first hand was powerful. While creative crafts have been part of rehabilitative techniques since at least as far back as 1918, most of them stressed wage-earning production within a capitalist economy rather than therapy.

Beginning in the 1940s, World War II veterans benefitted from small numbers of programs including one held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.2 Programs only expanded through the century, specifically with Vietnam War veterans. Now, art therapy programs are available to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in greater numbers than ever before in VA hospitals and military bases like Fort Belvoir.

While covering a large number of illuminating works of art, the exhibit at the NMHM had a selection of particularly powerful pieces that highlight the fluidity of pain and the rift that many veterans face between their wartime service experiences and a public that knows very little of the struggles many of them face. The first pieces of the exhibit were from Sergeant First Class Joshua Ferguson, a veteran of the war in Iraq, who lost a leg from an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in 2007.

Photo of three canvases lined up, with a black line of paint from one side to the other on each canvas. From top to bottom, the first canvas, “Comfortably Numb,” is the most linear and clear, painted while medicated. The second, “Me and My Shadow,” is similar, yet slightly smudged and painted while enduring nerve pain. The third, “The Fix is In,” is smudged even further, and was painted while “self-medicated.”
“Modified Pain Scale: Three Canvases” by Joshua L. Ferguson. (Evan Sullivan/Battle Signs Exhibit, National Museum of Health and Medicine)

His work, “Modified Pain Scale,” depicts three canvases lined up, with a black line of paint from one side to the other on each canvas. From top to bottom, the first canvas, “Comfortably Numb,” is the most linear and clear, painted while medicated. The second, “Me and My Shadow,” is similar, yet slightly smudged and painted while enduring nerve pain. The third, “The Fix is In,” is smudged even further, and was painted while “self-medicated.”3 Ferguson created these pieces not with a brush, but with the stump of the leg taken from the IED explosion.

Ferguson continues with the theme of the fluidity of pain with his piece “What’s Your Pain Today?” He created a pain scale similar to what one might see in a doctor’s office or hospital, yet instead of pain ranked in faces from zero to ten, the scale ranges from ten to zero and back to ten. Questioning the logic of relative pain, Ferguson writes, “Why is it … that people seem embarrassed to speak openly about their own pain, with friends who have also experienced the same pain? By that logic, I shouldn’t ever tell anyone that I’m hurting … there are those who have lost much more than me, who am I to complain?”4

Ferguson’s work brings to the fore both the inescapability of pain and the necessity of being comfortable expressing it.

Photo of a painting showing a series of round yellow faces making different expressions from happy to content to sad and in pain
“What’s Your Pain Today?” by Joshua L. Ferguson. (Evan Sullivan/Battle Signs Exhibit, National Museum of Health and Medicine)

Ferguson’s art also strikes at the core of an important dilemma: the expectation that veterans should transition seamlessly from war zone to civilian society. Sergeant First Class Jonathan Meadows’s piece, “Transitions,” highlights this exceptionally well, so much so that President Obama commissioned a copy for himself.5

The sculpture shows a wall splitting two worlds. On the left is home, depicting a peaceful family playing joyfully with their dog. On the right is a soldier charging valiantly into the chaos of the war zone. What’s most impressive is how Meadows uses the very thin wall between the two worlds as a metaphor for the uneasiness of the “transition” from one world to the other.

“Unmasking the Trauma of War,” another sub-exhibit, reflects the ongoing program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed. Working in conjunction with the program at Fort Belvoir, this specific collection is a group of masks that highlights the struggles of returning veterans to conform to a “normative” life in American society. One soldier depicts their inner struggle through a bloody skeleton peeking through a clean face draped in an American flag.

Another soldier reflects on her seemingly split sense of self with one side of the face showing the normative conception of femininity that much of society still expects of her, while the other side shows anger and the effects of war, expressed in what looks like The Hulk.6 The collection as a whole comprises over a dozen masks, all with individual stories, but collectively they symbolize the struggle of transition from two very different worlds and sets of expectations.

This exhibit and these art therapy programs are very important. The structure of modern war in a post-industrial nation is no longer one of whole societies pitted against one another, but of small enclaves within one society engaging with the whole of another. Small percentages of soldiers spend large swaths of time in danger and come home to a society almost entirely unaffected. How do we, civilians who can’t begin to understand these physical and emotional stresses, contend with this transition?

It is too easy to forget that we have been actively engaged in wars in the Middle East for the better part of a generation; it is too easy to see exhibits like this, and then move on with our lives shortly after leaving the museum.

But war is hard, and hard things need to be confronted. We cannot deflect difficult subjects, because deflection leads to misunderstanding. It is our responsibility as a society, and not just specialists, to take exhibits like this as a starting point to engage more holistically and continuously in examining the repercussions of modern war, and to acknowledge the existence of its costs.

It is also our responsibility to think critically about the expectations placed not only on men and women in uniform, but on citizens more generally, when we continue to assume seamless transitions and normative livelihoods. Only when we continue confronting these difficult but much needed conversations will we challenge the reasoning for engaging in war in the first place and develop better transitional programs.

Notes

  1. “Battle Signs: OIF and OEF Veterans Using Art Therapy to Process TBI and PTS Injuries and Trauma,” Battle Signs Exhibit, National Museum of Health and Medicine. Return to text.
  2. Victor D’Amico, “Art for War Veterans,” The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, 13, no. 1 (September 1945). Return to text.
  3. “Modified Pain Scale: Three Canvases,” Joshua L. Ferguson Battle Signs Exhibit, National Museum of Health and Medicine. Return to text.
  4. “What’s Your Pain Today?” Joshua L. Ferguson, Battle Signs Exhibit, National Museum of Health and Medicine. Return to text.
  5. “Transitions,” Jonathan Meadows, Battle Signs Exhibit, National Museum of Health and Medicine. Return to text.
  6. “Unmasking the Trauma of War,” Battle Signs Exhibit, National Museum of Health and Medicine. Return to text.

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