Options for Healing

A Look at Creative Forces' Community Connections Projects

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A man in brown Navy uniform plays the piano and wears a harmonica on a neckstrap while another man looks on

Lieutenant Jordan Lo (left) with music therapist Cory Woodrow at the second Pop-Up Community Creative Arts Café. Photo by Angelito Bautista

When retired Navy corpsman Jason Danley finished his tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, “It was really hard to find where I fit because it was almost like I didn’t relate to anybody anymore,” he remembered. “It made it very, very isolating. I just kind of combusted into myself.” Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), he participated in music therapy as part of his treatment at Naval Medical Center San Diego, which not only helped him begin to process his painful experiences and rebuild his relationships, but revived a love of music that had become buried beneath the demands of military service, fatherhood, and marriage. 

Like most medical appointments, his therapy slots were held during working 9-5 hours. “But what happens from five to midnight when people are left to sit with what they’re dealing with?” asked his wife Christina, who also served as a Navy corpsman. “That’s where I think a lot of people fall apart. It opens these avenues for not good habits.” The consequences of those habits can be devastating: more than 20 percent of veterans with PTSD have been diagnosed with substance abuse disorder, and both PTSD and TBI are considered major risk factors for suicide, which kills an estimated 20 veterans every day.

To address this disturbing phenomenon, the National Endowment for the Arts launched Creative Forces in 2011. A partnership between the NEA, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, and state and local arts agencies, Creative Forces promotes health and wellness among service members and veterans with PTSD, TBI, and other psychological health conditions. The initiative provides creative arts therapies at military installations throughout the country, as well as through a telehealth program for rural and remote regions.

But what happens after clinical treatment? Christina went into overdrive to fill her husband’s evenings and weekends with positive activities—everything from salsa to surf therapy. “I had to dig for it,” she said. “It wasn’t readily available for people that really needed it.”

Young men sit side by side on chairs while playing hand drums outside

A drum circle was one of many arts activities available at the second Pop-Up Community Creative Arts Café. Photo by Angelito Bautista

Through a referral from Jason’s music therapist, the couple discovered the recreational music program at Resounding Joy, which also provides music therapy to service members and veterans who have experienced trauma. By partaking in the organization’s Semper Sound band, Jason found an ongoing emotional outlet and the camaraderie he sorely missed from his days in the service. It eventually opened up a larger world beyond his injuries and his service, and he continues to write and record music on his own and with his children. 

Now, in collaboration with the Intrepid Spirit Center at Camp Pendleton, Resounding Joy is helping to replicate the Danleys’ success story through the Community Connections component of Creative Forces. 

Through Community Connections, Creative Forces is building networks of arts organizations in communities surrounding clinical sites, allowing patients to continue participating in the arts after treatment to ensure a successful transition back to civilian life. The networks will also provide options for service members and veterans who have not received clinical therapy, but would benefit from hands-on experiences with the arts.

“In music [therapy], we always look at how can we create this safe container for somebody to express themselves,” said Barbara Reuer, executive director of Resounding Joy. “If they get connected with the arts while they’re in treatment, then it’s a connection to the community where they can keep working on expressing themselves and letting go and feeling safe. It’s expanding that safe container into the community.” 

Last year, summits were held in each clinical site community, where leadership from local military installations, representatives from the state arts agency, and local arts administrators met to discuss how best to build these clinic-to-community continuums. The summits led to the creation of 11 Community Connections projects, each of which speaks to the distinct needs and populations of the site’s surrounding community. Projects will receive up to $50,000 in support from the National Endowment for the Arts and are designed to be replicable in other communities. 

A man in wool cap and a young boy in a red jacket work with clay set out on a table

The second Pop-Up Community Creative Arts Café invited participants to experience a variety of art forms. Photo by Angelito Bautista

The projects are varied in scope. For example, in Colorado, artists will be trained in how to effectively, responsibly, and empathetically work with military populations—while also teaching military health practitioners about the value of arts participation for their patients. A website will maintain a public directory of the trained artists, arts organizations, and military service providers. And in North Carolina, the Community Connections project will offer open studio time to the military community and have a traveling exhibition of participants’ work.

Resounding Joy is leading the California project, in partnership with five other organizations they connected with at the summit: Combat Arts, VetArt, So Say We All, Vets’ Community Connections, and the San Diego Veterans Coalition. With support from the Intrepid Spirit Center at Camp Pendleton, and the Danleys serving as consultants, each organization will host a Pop-Up Community Creative Arts Café, which will be held in various locations across San Diego County.

The purpose of the cafés is to connect members of the general public to the area’s military community, introduce service members and veterans to a wide variety of art forms that they might connect with, and raise awareness of organizations that work with military populations, which would help prevent individuals from having to scramble for resources as Christina once did. 

The inaugural pop-up café was held in November at the Oceanside Library, and featured a drum circle, art-making activities for children and adults, and information about the six participating arts organizations, all of which were in attendance. Patients from the Creative Forces music therapy program at the Intrepid Spirit Center at Camp Pendleton and veterans of the Semper Sound Band came together to perform, and many of them shared stories about their personal journey with the audience. 

A man, older woman, and young girl perform on musical instruments on a small stage on a sunny day

SGT Benjamin Tourtelot performed with his daughter and mother at the inaugural Pop-Up Community Creative Arts Café, held at the Oceanside Library. Photo by Angelito Bautista

For some, their performance was a celebration of all they have accomplished physically following their injuries, from being able to master complicated finger work on an instrument to memorizing chords. For others, it marked an emotional milestone, and signified they were ready to move their music and their stories beyond the clinic walls.

For retired SGT Benjamin Tourtelot, the café marked the first time he performed with his family in a public setting. Tourtelot suffered catastrophic brain injury during his service with the Marine Corps, and received treatment at Camp Pendleton. As part of his performance at the café, he invited his daughter to come onstage with him to perform a song they wrote together. “I remember looking over at her in that moment and thinking to myself, ‘How did I get here at this point in my life, performing alongside my daughter on stage?’” said Tourtelot, whose mother also joined in for the finale song. “Music is the best thing for me; it brought me back to life. Having my family there performing beside me was reassuring that I am in the right place doing the right thing.”

For Creative Forces music therapist Rebecca Vaudreuil, Tourtelot’s experience is indicative of why the cafés are such a critical step in the clinic-to-community continuum. “With traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, there’s a lot of guilt and shame,” said Vaudreuil, who previously worked at the Intrepid Spirit Center at Camp Pendleton, and was instrumental in developing the Community Connections project. But through performance, “it no longer consumes their identity. It’s no longer a secret. You don’t have to be ashamed of it. Audiences are supportive of what the service members are presenting to them through creative expression of their stories.”

At the cafés, this support is shown in visceral ways—through hugs, handshakes, conversation, and applause. “What’s really important is that human connection,” Reuer noted. “When you sit down and do a large drum circle, you make music together, you create something beautiful, and you’re connected to the group.”

The Danleys are both grateful that through Creative Forces, they’re able to “pay it forward,” as Jason said, and give others the opportunities they had to succeed. “It’s a scary world if you don’t have what you need to move forward,” said Christina. “To know that it’s there and it exists and people love you no matter what—that’s what we want to do.”