Thursday, October 15, 2015

From High Heels to Combat Boots

Jessica Herrera works on a pastel portrait of her father, who passed away six years ago. She said he was her biggest supporter and stood by her as she recovered from an illness that cut her military career short.

She found her voice in her paintings and pastels, and silenced the other voices that filled her head with despair.

Air Force Veteran Jessica Herrera, is the first place winner in the special recognition category at this year's National Veterans Creative Arts Festival for her portrait, “Trading in My Heels for Combat Boots."

She said her artwork gave her life purpose after her military career was cut short because of schizophrenia.

Herrera was 23 and stationed at Misawa Air Base, Japan, when it started back in 2004. At first, she couldn’t understand what was happening because it all seemed so real.

“My whole family was proud of me for joining the Air Force, and they were excited for me,” she said. “I had a good time, made a lot of friends and everything seemed to be going OK. But I started hearing voices, and didn’t even realize it was happening for months.

“I would sit at my computer and thought my mouse would move on its own. I could hear a sink dripping. People would talk to me all day. It just seemed so real. I remember walking to lunch one day, and two people telling me jokes and talking, and I just thought they were actually there.”

But alone in her dorm room, the problem got worse. She couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was spying and invading her privacy. She could hear their laughs and was convinced someone set up cameras in her room. As she tore her room apart, worried friends called for help. By the time her commander arrived, she was inconsolable.

Herrera struggled to understand the diagnosis.

“It was scary. I couldn’t believe it at first. The military was everything and all of a sudden it was shattered. At first I thought, ‘No, that can’t be right. This is very real.’”

Herrera hid herself away from the public.

“My dad had the bumper sticker: ‘My daughter is in the Air Force.’ Then I’m coming home a year later and telling people I got sick. It was embarrassing to say.”

But when she found art therapy at the Albuquerque VA, her world changed for the better.

“That whole time I thought I was a failure for not being in the military; I thought people would laugh or think less of me. But even though I was sick, people treated me like one of them, like another Veteran.

“Nobody asked why I was sick or what was wrong. Everybody just talked about art. I’m around other Veterans, and we have that in common. It’s a great feeling to be part of a group like that.”

Using art as her healing balm, she came alive again. As she focused on her art, the voices disappeared. She met her husband, Fabian, after an online relationship blossomed into love. They have a 5-year-old daughter, Danielle, and twins Audrey and Brianna, 2. These days she’s a stay-at-home mom and artist with her own web site that details her work and struggles:

By telling her story, she said she hopes to give people an understanding of the illness, but more importantly, let people know there is hope and recovery.

Her inspiration for “Trading Heels for Combat Boots,” came in the middle of the night. She jumped out of bed and arranged her uniform, boots and heels on her bed to take a photo before she could forget. The work speaks to her transition to the military, and now her life as a civilian.

“The military is something I’m still proud of, and I’m proud I could recover and be a Mom,” she said. “This week in North Carolina, I get to be back with the military, with the artists and with my other Veterans. It’s the best feeling in the world.”


This week I'm sharing some of my favorite stories from the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in Durham, North Carolina. For more on the healing power of our National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, click here.

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"From High Heels to Combat Boots."