Photo Of The Day

Photo: ©Lynn Johnson/National Geographic

Photo: ©Lynn Johnson/National Geographic

Behind The Mask

Revealing the Trauma of War

Army Staff Sgt. Perry Hopman, Iraq 2006-08

 Wearing his mask—half patriotic, half death’s-head—Hopman confronts the battery of medications he takes daily for blast-force injuries he sustained while treating soldiers as a flight medic. “I know my name, but I don’t know the man who used to back up that name … I never thought I would have to set a reminder to take a shower, you know. I’m 39 years old. I’ve got to set a reminder to take medicine, set a reminder to do anything… My daughter, she’s only four, so this is the only dad she’s ever known, whereas my son knew me before.”

 Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan often return home with wounds that can’t be seen on the surface: brain injuries resulting from the shockwaves that follow explosions. Some veterans, including service members at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, have attempted to cope with the challenges they face through art therapy.Brain injuries caused by blast events change soldiers in ways many can’t articulate. Some use art therapy, creating painted masks to express how they feel.

I thought this was a joke,” recalled Staff Sgt. Perry Hopman, who served as a flight medic in Iraq. “I wanted no part of it because, number one, I’m a man, and I don’t like holding a dainty little paintbrush. Number two, I’m not an artist. And number three, I’m not in kindergarten. Well, I was ignorant, and I was wrong, because it’s great. I think this is what started me kind of opening up and talking about stuff and actually trying to get better.”

Hopman is one of many service members guided by art therapist Melissa Walker at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), which is part of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland. Images painted on their masks symbolize themes such as death, physical pain, and patriotism.

“Sometimes you find yourself saying, I wish … I would have lost a body part, so people will see—so they’ll get it.”

Army First Sgt. David Griego, Iraq 2008, Afghanistan 2012

The Invisible War on the Brain

Brain trauma from blast force is the signature injury of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, afflicting hundreds of thousands of U.S. combat personnel. Although unseen, the damage strikes deeply into a soldier’s mind and psyche.

Melissa Walker designed the Healing Arts Program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence on the campus of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. She is the program’s sole art therapist, and also serves as its coordinator. The program aims to help the recovering service members find a creative haven where their buried post-war thoughts and emotions can come to the surface through art and therapy.

With gentle encouragement from Walker, active-duty troops create their way to healing. By working on their art projects in a personal manner, they confront the circumstances of their injuries and begin to overcome the uncertainty they might feel, she said.

“What’s bothering them runs the gamut of that moment in time: … the frozen trauma, the frozen memory. They can’t seem to shake what they’ve internalized,” Walker said.

The center provides treatment, recovery, rehabilitation and, sometimes, reintegration to active duty for service members who have psychological health issues and traumatic brain injury. All have mild to moderate post-traumatic stress disorder, and most also have had some kind of head injury from exposure to a blast injury or fall, Walker said.

When these service members come to the center, they’re often in a confused place, and some experience a loss of identity. Those who want to return to duty have a difficult time because they’re passionate about their jobs, and those who will rejoin the civilian world wonder what they’ll face, she said.

“They need to realize, ‘It’s time to take care of myself,’” she said.

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