Healing the invisible wounds of war. It’s an inside job.

By Ann Thompson  

“The returning warrior needs to heal more than his mind and body, he needs to heal his soul.” - Karl Marlantes, Vietnam War Veteran and Author

Regardless of the conflict or generation, service members are profoundly changed by war, and some even say the real war began when they returned home to their civilian life. Transitioning out of the military is difficult for some, but especially for service members who experience emotionally traumatic events, sustain life-altering injuries, or know someone killed or injured. Returning service men and women can feel isolated and overwhelmed trying to cope with their personal pain and distress.

Veterans are twice as likely to die from suicide than the general population according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and even with a focus on mental health and recovery, some veterans do not respond to traditional treatments or therapy. That’s why a grassroots organization called Warrior StoryField (WSF) is so crucial. This nonprofit is created by veterans, for veterans and uses artmaking as a vehicle to express and process complex thoughts and emotions.  

WSF is facilitated by metal artist and civilian Robert Bellows. He explains the group’s dynamics this way, “They’re teaching me how to lead and I’m teaching them how to pound metal.” Bellows has been making art for 50 years but opened his Longmont, Colorado studio more than six years ago to two of his friends and Iraq War veterans, Brad Gallup (U.S. Air Force) and Danny Moore (U.S. Army). Bellows explains, “I didn’t know it then, but my world was about to get rocked.” Nine months later, the three men invited more veterans, family members, and the community to drop-in to Bellows’ shop. 
Robert Bellows, center, facilitates the art making process.

The WSF project is a collaborative public art sculpture examining the transition from warrior to veteran participating in civilian life, and when complete, the work will be on permanent display in a local Colorado park. There’s a 16-foot-tall dragon representing the fierce warrior and an 18-foot-tall phoenix, a bird of rebirth, symbolizing the men and women who return home from war, fundamentally changed on the battlefield and seeking restoration. Locked in an eternal stare down, the space between the two mythological creatures is the “story field” that represents the soul. 
Veterans from Vietnam and World War II stand with models of their dragon and phoenix sculptures.

The military fosters camaraderie and dedication to mission so it is common for returning service members to experience a loss of direction and identity, moral conflict, anger, and even a sense of betrayal. Potential employers often don’t know how to apply veteran’s skills to the workplace, making it difficult for them to find fulfilling and productive outlets for their talents. Veterans can feel disconnected from the people in their own support system, who cannot understand or relate to their combat zone experience and then because of deployment and redeployments, there are voids in relationships because milestones like births, weddings, and funerals were missed. 

Facing painful realities is hard. Choosing to soften a protected heart can be frightening, unfamiliar, and risky but also necessary for any chance at soul repair. Since grief must be claimed, WSF is about inquiry, deep questioning, exploration of ideas, and the process of making art. However, it’s not art therapy; there aren’t doctor/patient relationships, no office waiting lines, fees or forms to complete. Bellows just opens his shop doors, shares his artistic knowledge, and donates time, materials, and equipment, including his Hypertherm Powermax65 plasma system. It’s a social experience that’s not defined by illness and the artmaking restores confidence and relieves stress. 
Civilians and Vietnam veterans stand with the full-scale phoenix sculpture.

Founding member Brad Gallup, describes his experience this way, “For me, it was really profound. I was told I wasn’t an artist at an early age, and I bought into it. Then when I was really struggling with a divorce and PTSD, I connected with Robert and when working on the artwork, something just shifted in me. Maybe because creating with Robert kept me in the moment, but art changed me. I cannot put it into words, but it allowed something to yield and me to heal.”

To date, more than 50 veterans from six wars, their families, and local civilians have participated in this project. If you’re interested in learning more or supporting WSF, visit www.warriorstoryfield.org