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Oct 31, 2010 10:48 AM by Dr. Anya Winslow

Soldiers battle post-traumatic stress disorder through art

After witnessing the horrors of war, many of our soldiers are afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Specialist Isaac Torres was one of them. He returned from Iraq in 2006; eight months later he was diagnosed with PTSD. Over the years, "I've tried many therapies," he says; however, none enabled him to cope with his condition until he found the Military Creative Expressions program in March of 2010.

"Ever since I've been in this class, I've seen myself heal up and heal up and heal up because I'm getting all that junk out, junk out, and junk out, which allows for the positive to begin to flow," says Specialist Torres.

The program is joint effort between the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and Aspen Pointe. Art therapy instructor Kim Nguyen (pronounced "win") leads the class and Barbara Tise provides clinical support. The class is relaxed; students paint at their own pace and at the end of every session students process their art with the help of Nguyen.

Nguyen is no stranger to PTSD. She, too, suffered from the illness after moving to the United States from a war-ridden Vietnam and found solace from the condition through art. "This is not about painting pretty pictures," says Nguyen, "It's about learning a skill [so] that they can express themselves."

One of the aims of the program is for the soldiers to reclaim control of their lives. "This program gives them control," states Nguyen. The soldiers do that through a progression of the medium they use. "They start out with pencils, then gradually we move to color pencils and then acrylic [paints], and water colors are the least controllable medium." It is a process of gaining control and, "Gradually learning to let go of the control and learn to trust others," she says, which is mirrored through the medium they learn to use.

"I'm finding out what my paintings mean, what certain colors mean," reflects Specialist Torres, "Something that's in your subconscious, you don't realize, until it's interpreted, you get a better grasp of what you're going through."

"[Knowing that] the person sitting next to you understands where you're coming from, what your facing and they're not going to judge you," adds Specialist Torres, aids in the recovery process.

The program is gaining attention. Hollywood actress America Ferrera sees the beauty in their work and even purchased a few of the paintings. All the monies received from the sale of the paintings goes back to the program to provide scholarships for the soldiers who wish to continue to take other types of art classes at the Bemis School of Art.

"When you find a new way of healing, it gets you excited and you want to share it with others," says Specialist Torres and he intends to pay it forward.

Earlier next year he plans to open a coffee shop in Old Colorado City. One of the elements of his shop includes showcasing soldiers' artwork from the program. Funds or donations that are acquired from the sale of the artwork will go back to the Military Expressions Program to fund participants' healing endeavors. If you would like to learn more about Specialist's Torres non-profit organization and how you can help him with the project and his business click here.

For this group of soldiers, paints, brushes and pencils are weapons for recovery.

A little about the Military Creative Expressions program...

It's free and runs for fifteen weeks. Participants can come and go as they please or can continue to take classes for as long as they choose. Soldiers interested in joining the program can start at any time by calling Kim Nguyen at (719) 572-6450. The program takes place at the Bemis School of Art at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center every Tuesday from 1:30-3:30 p.m. Ms. Nguyen also says you can, "Just show up."

For those of you interested in what some of the colors mean, Nguyen shares:

Black: determination
Blue: masculine energy
Brown: grounded, humble, down to earth
Green: growth, self improvement
Orange: looking for direction in the divine
Purple: loyalty
Red: passion, pain, grieving
White: purity, innocence, childhood
Yellow: divine, one's own spirituality

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