USO’s Art Therapy Program aids Wounded Warriors.
Ashy Palliparambil, an art therapist in charge of the United Service Organizations’ Art as Therapy Program, explains the concepts behind two pieces of artwork created by wounded warriors and displayed at the USO Warrior and Family Care Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
(DOD photo and article by Sergeant 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr. of American Forces Press Service, 22 MAY 2014.)
Long since known for its tradition of lifting the spirits of America’s troops and their families, the United Service Organizations’ Art as Therapy program provides comfort and a creative refuge for wounded warriors in the healing process.
Ashy Palliparambil, an Art Therapist and Hospital Services Program Specialist, has led the USO Art and Music Program here since August 2012, focusing on recreational programs which serve as a therapeutic release for wounded troops while creating a “safe space” to create art while they recover.
The unique program operates exclusively at the Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland and Fort Belvoir USO Warrior and Family Centers where there are a high number of wounded, ill and injured troops undergoing the recovery process.
Some of the services offered through the art and music program include wood carving, acrylic and watercolor painting, drawing, collaging, sculpture, writing, multimedia, poetry and spoken word workshops.
"Before the center was open, USO didn’t really have an art program or anything that offered something similar to this," Palliparambil said yesterday during an interview with the American Forces Press Service. "When the center was being built they decided that they would have a music studio and an art studio.
"They decided to hire an art therapist who could pick programs that would be beneficial for the service members," she continued. "I think the programs have developed very organically."
Palliparambil said the program has flourished from partnerships she has been able to foster with willing organizations based on activities that service members request.
"Photography is an example of that," she said. "Photography is something the service members come to me and say, ‘Hey, we really want to learn this. Can you find someone to help us become better photographers?’
"So then I found a USO volunteer photographer who could facilitate that," Palliparambil added.
Sometimes, the art therapist noted, it comes from organizations such as the woodcarving group which initially operated only in Bethesda who offered to help elsewhere.
"They said, ‘Well, you have this new center at Belvoir,’" Palliparambil said. “‘I might have some people there that live close to that area.’"
The USO tried woodcarving, she said, “and we actually got a good amount of people who came out to the woodcarving workshops.
"So it’s happened both ways," Palliparambil continued. "It’s what the service members want and then what can be offered. And we kind of see what works and what doesn’t and go from there."
It’s not always a bad thing when something doesn’t work, she noted. “We also have programs that don’t do well, but we always try to give everyone an opportunity to offer a different program here,” Palliparambil said.
Activities also include a photo-transfer class, stained glass-making, learning to create using air-dry clay, model airplanes and ships, and garden stepping stones, according to the art therapist.
"We’ve also had cartoonists come in," Palliparambil said. There are also opportunities to do three-dimensional works like the 360 project using any medium, mask making, collages, and many other services, she said.
Specialized workshops, Palliparambil said, such as combat paper where uniforms are turned into paper for imagery and words are also available.
"We’ve also had the Shakespeare Theater do some professional development," she said, which involves employing acting skills to teach participants how to do interviews and present themselves to get a job.
One of the most challenging parts of her job, Palliparambil said, is watching service members who have grown close to the staff, transition out to new endeavors.
"Sometimes you get a good group of people who are really into the arts and will be in here making art," she said. "They will be here past open studio time, talking, have music playing, creating art together.
"And then they move on to bigger and better things, and they transition out," Palliparambil continued. "So you don’t have the same flow anymore, and it’s about getting new people interested. The constant changing that’s happening here — it’s a transition unit — everyone’s transitioning in and out."
As they leave, it’s a challenge to get the next group of people interested in the program, she said.
"A lot of people say that they’ve never made art before, or ‘I can’t draw a stick figure,’" Palliparambil said. "So just getting them to have the confidence to even come into the art studio is a challenge sometimes."
Palliparambil said she “definitely” thinks about those that depart the program, especially the wounded, ill and injured troops who use the art studio.
"It’s not opened to everybody," she said. "It’s usually a very small, intimate group."
The wounded warriors “get to the point where they’re comfortable in talking to you,” Palliparambil said, “and sharing their stories, and sharing their recovery process with you. So it’s great to have been able to meet them and work with them. It becomes very sad when it’s time for them to go.”
Palliparambil noted the USO’s music and art program dovetails with other programs that help service members and veterans.
"A lot of people here are transitioning out," she said. "Being able to find resources outside of a military post is important. So I think we just complement each other really well."
Palliparambil said that while the Fort Belvoir program is specific to wounded, injured and ill troops, there are other activities at the Bethesda center which is open to active-duty service members and their families.
"At Bethesda, there are some programs that are open to all active duty [service members]," she said. "We have a children’s program there, and I do get some of the families that work there and live close by that will bring their kids to the program."
After seeing over 1,000 people participate in the first year alone, Palliparambil said she feels as though the program has made a difference in terms of helping wounded troops recover and providing a creative outlet for active duty service members and their families.
"I think it’s very positive, because after a year, you can see that the whole studio is filled with art," Palliparambil said. "That means that people are coming in here making use of the space on their own time and in the program. So I think it’s been well-received by the service members."
For now, the USO Art as Therapy Program is available for service members and their caregivers to explore, so they can “go back and learn to play, and kind of let go and just be,” Palliparambil said.
"And we just hope that they keep coming back," she said.
(Follow Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone Marshall on Twitter: @MarshallAFPS)
United Services Organization-Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore