MY ART STORY by

Denise Gula

Oberlin
Ohio

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A male and female dancer in publicity shot.

Denise Gula's dance piece Blood Stripe. Photo by Dale Dong

As a choreographer and founder/artistic director of Ohio Dance Theatre, I sometimes have the luxury of creating socially relevant work. In this particular case, I was able to use my art form to create something that I also feel passionate about. Blood Stripe describes the struggle of a Marine veteran, one of the millions of Americans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and returned home profoundly changed by the soul-wrenching experience of combat. During the Iraq War, 48 Marines stationed with the 325th Marine Battalion were killed in Iraq. My son-in-law was among the many who “survived” but came home forever changed. I made the ballet because I felt helpless witnessing my daughter’s family as they struggle with long-term effects of PTSD and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). Blood Stripe uses dance to communicate the military experience, expressing through movement thoughts that words often cannot say. The name of the piece comes from Marine jargon that references the red band on dress uniform trousers worn by officers and NCOs, symbolizing blood shed by marines in war.

The audience response to Blood Stripe has been very moving. Members of my own family remarked to me that they really had no idea how devastating living with this situation could be. Most gratifying was when Tim DeWolf who heads the foundation said to me, “As a Vietnam vet suffering myself from PTSD and working with families and vets every day, I thought I understood this problem from every conceivable angle. Tonight I was truly humbled because tonight I realized for the first time what my wife has had to deal with all these years and I am saddened that until now I never understood how difficult it was for her.” Tim had also brought a vet and his wife to the performance. The vet had just been 10 days out of rehab and his wife was by her own admission and despite the 10 years since the 325th had returned from Iraq, just on the beginning of the journey in finding help. She thanked me for bringing to light her story.

Thousands of veterans have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from PTSD and TBI, and it is heartbreaking to watch the struggles they and their families go through when they return home. Having lived through the Vietnam era, I can’t help but recall the reaction of our nation to Vietnam veterans when they returned from fighting in that conflict. I’m embarrassed when I recall the hostility and disrespect that greeted our returning Vietnam veterans. I am grateful that as a nation we have evolved enough to understand that regardless of our personal political views, the men and women that fight for our county are heroes and should be treated accordingly but believe our vets and their families are not given enough support or guidance from our government in coping with the long term effects of these disorders. As artists, we like to believe that our work will touch or change lives for the better and it is my hope that his new work will help bring awareness and shed light on the plight of the families of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Denise Gula
Oberlin, OH