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Veterans use artwork to help them deal with PTSD

SALISBURY — Art is a way to relax and take your mind off combat stress, said Glen Doctor, a Gulf War Army infantry veteran who displayed drawings during Wednesday’s annual art show, “Expressions of PTSD.”

Doctor, like many veterans, is dealing with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. He was diagnosed after he returned to the U.S. from 21 years of service, from 1978 to 1998, and began working as an 18-wheeler driver. That was in 2002 when he couldn’t sleep for two to three days, he said. Doctor said he knew he had symptoms of PTSD and began going to the Salisbury VA Medical Center hospital.

Wednesday’s art show, aimed at promoting National PTSD Awareness Day, was the Salisbury VA’s sixth annual art show. It featured art, poetry, music, drawings and woodwork. The goal was to raise awareness of what PTSD is, said Brandon Bryan, coordinator of the PTSD Clinical Team and PTSD Residential Treatment Program.

By raising awareness, people can understand that sufferers are real people with real conditions, Bryan said.

Four veterans who spoke to the Post about their art said there needs to be more widespread attention on PTSD and its symptoms.

The art featured in Wednesday’s art show was by veterans who had experienced PTSD. It’s a way for them to express parts of their “journey,” Bryan said.

“Art is the expression of the soul,” said Joseph Vaughn, director of the Salisbury VA Medical Center.

Art offers a step toward whole health, which includes healing of the mind, body and soul, Vaughn said.

Raphael D’Ausilio, a veteran artist at Wednesday’s art show, demonstrated how he makes woodcarvings and figurines. D’Ausilio served in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1969. It was not for roughly another 40 years, when he visited the VA, that D’Ausilio realized he had all the symptoms of PTSD, he said.

Overcoming struggles with PTSD is a challenge, said D’Ausilio, who is now a peer support specialist. People with PTSD get angry and have a short fuse, he said. And events such as the Fourth of July could become terrifying with the sound of fireworks, he said.

PTSD caused him to struggle with relationships. D’Ausilio began making woodcarvings, which takes focus that is calming and relaxing, he said.

D’Ausilio said his time wood carving helped bring him into a community; he now belongs to a club in Statesville, Piedmont Woodcarvers, where he can meet with other veterans. And there’s an instant sense of camaraderie among veterans, he said. This is important, he said, because veterans who have PTSD tend to become isolated.

Withdrawing is known as the “bunker mentality,” Bryan said. It can become a huge quality-of-life issue, he said. Veterans won’t always be willing to talk about their problems, Bryan said. Some of the art is a way for them to talk through expressing abstract ideas, he said.

Calvin Norton, who served in the Army from 1968 to 1970 and in Vietnam War from 1968 to 1969 in the 75th Rangers, echoed parts of D’Ausilio’s story.

Creating wooden bowls, which Norton had on display Wednesday, has helped keep his mind occupied, he said. Working on woodcarvings is something to look forward to, he added.

It is important, Norton said, to bring PTSD to the public’s attention. Younger veterans who are coming home don’t necessarily know what PTSD is and might be struggling with its symptoms, he said. The VA helps put the road map out there to help veterans work through PTSD, he said.

Norton said it is key for veterans with PTSD to find an interest they can focus on.

Tom Petty, a Vietnam War veteran who served in the Army from 1968 to 1974 and in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971, said he began noticing the effects of PTSD when he came home.

Still, Petty said, it wasn’t until he retired in 2011, after working at a demolition company, that he realized he had PTSD. In about 2012, he began getting therapy. Petty said he had taken classes for art in high school and began trying art again after it was suggested that he get therapy.

Petty said it’s nice to connect with other veterans because they know what one another have gone through. He found this connection while painting at McDowell Arts Center in Mathews, he said.

Wednesday was one of two events the Salisbury VA is hosting for PTSD Awareness Day, which is today. The program “Awareness of PTSD” will be held today for anyone interested in gaining a broader understanding of PTSD.

Contact reporter Samuel Motley at 704-797-4264. 

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