THE BLOG
11/11/2014 01:43 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

Veterans, Healing and the Arts

Today is Veterans Day, a time when our nation reflects on the contribution, sacrifice and legacy of our military service members and their families. For many of us, these reflections can turn deeply personal. I'm thinking of my father, who served overseas as a young private in World War II and then later retired as a major in the intelligence branch, U.S. Army Reserves, and of my mother, who was honored here in Washington last spring for her work in the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps during WWII.

Each military family's story is unique, but collectively they form an important part of American life, just as the arts do. This is why the National Initiative for Arts and Health in the Military, coordinated by Americans for the Arts, is so important and involves some 16 other national partners. The arts have played an active, meaningful role in addressing the vast array of critical issues facing America's service members, veterans and their families, and there is much more to learn about the healing and transformative power the arts can provide to the military.

Earlier this year I saw a magnificent production of Liz Lerman's The Healing Wars with Bill Pullman that showed through art the horror of the Civil War and the difficulty returning soldiers had in healing from that conflict. The current moment offers an unprecedented opportunity to ensure that military servicemen and women, veterans and their families have full access to the broad range of arts activities in their communities. It is also the time to ensure that arts-based therapy services are in place in communities across the United States to help our troops and their families deal with key physical and psychological health issues--from pre-deployment to deployment to homecoming. We need to do all we can to ensure that our veterans make the transition home.

I am encouraged that the National Initiative on Arts and Health in the Military, we are committed to working for policy that supports these programs and services and to serving as the national nexus for knowledge and connection. The initiative is about leadership, sharing the message, and bringing together the ever-growing network of partners and practitioners seeking guidance, connection, knowledge, and capacity-building resources.

Part of that leadership needs to come from the military and also from the veterans sectors, like our new board member Tommy Sowers. From 2012 to 2014, Tommy served as Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In that capacity, he initiated Americans for the Arts recent Memorandum of Understanding with the VA--a new public/private endeavor to increase and strengthen partnership and cooperation between local arts communities and VA facilities throughout the country. He served 11 years active duty in the U.S. Army after college, including two combat tours in Iraq as a Green Beret. He knows the military experience firsthand, and he is also deeply passionate about the arts in America. Tommy joins another former military officer on our board, retired Brig. Gen. Nolen Bivens. Just last week, Nolen and I were on a panel at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that followed a special screening of the "Service" episode of Craft in America, which tells the story of the long and important relationship between craft and the military, including the Army Arts and Crafts Program (begun in 1940), the GI Bill, and work done by veterans today. We discussed how the arts can inspire, motivate, and heal our veterans and returning service members in every community, and our conversation was yet another reminder that the arts are all around us.

Arts are everywhere, and veterans are everywhere, and the American Legion Auxiliary has been a key partner in connecting the two. That's why we honored them this year for Outstanding Contributions to the Arts at the National Arts Awards. As Tommy Sowers said in the tribute video that accompanied the award presentation, "There's an American Legion Auxiliary and an arts organization in every community to serve our veterans." There was one in the town where I grew up in Stoughton, Mass., and after my grandfather returned from WWI with a Purple Heart, my grandmother was a loyal member for almost 50 years.

The National Initiative for Arts and Health in the Military has a great team assembled, a solid foundation of work behind us, and with the help of arts organizations throughout the U.S., we are ready to do more good work in 2015. Together with our partners, we are looking ahead to national idea and policy meetings at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., in February; with We Are Veterans in Grand Rapids, Mich., in April; and the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in Durham, N.C. in November. We're building online resources to connect the growing network of organizations and individuals across the country that are actively working to promote awareness of the arts in health, healing, and health care for military service members, veterans, their families and caregivers. And we do it all because we know that the arts have the power to spur a conversation that might not happen otherwise and can provide a unique avenue for connection and recovery for our military service members and veterans.

There will be a huge concert today on the National Mall with Bruce Springsteen, Carrie Underwood and many other artists. Smaller arts concerts and celebrations will take place all across America. That is one way the arts can help bring joy, celebration and thanks into lives of veterans and their families. There will also be quieter moments of music, and painting, and craft activity, and theater, and dance in hospital rooms and art therapy programs across America. That is another way the arts are helping and healing service members every day.

Please join me today in saluting our nation's veterans and remembering the transformative healing power of the arts. If you or your family has personal stories of the arts in the military, please share them with us on the Americans for the Arts Facebook page, Twitter or Instagram.