Saturday, October 10, 2015

VA's suicide solution

Each year, veterans come from all over the U.S. (including Hawaii) to showcase their talents at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. For some, it's just about the love of performing. For others, it offers hope and healing.

His name was Connie, and he came to town to kill himself.

"I was an over-the-road truck driver, so I knew what rest stop I was going to do it at and had my gun," he told me. "I had the place picked out and everything."

But first he was making a stop at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, where he was asked to attend, based on a poem he wrote before the brain injury.

"And I thought it was just going to be a rinky-dink, fly-by-night VA thing where they threw it together for the veterans and didn't really care. And I walked through those doors, and was embraced. I was treated like a human being. I went up to the VIP lounge and sat and talked for hours. They literally saved my life."

That was eight years ago. And now Connie, an Army veteran, tries to make it to the national arts festival every year. Even when he's not selected, he tries to pay his way to support the other veterans, tell his story and maybe pay it forward and save another life.

He told me that story two years ago at the event in Reno, Nevada, where he was singing in the chorus for the two-hour finale show. I hope he'll be back this year when the event comes to Durham, North Carolina, Oct. 11 to 19.

One of last year's award-winning pieces.
Each year, 155 VA hospitals hold local art festivals in two parts: The first part is for artists of all makes and stripes -- oil painting, pen and ink, ceramics, sculpture, photography, model building and a hundred other categories. The other part is for stage performers -- musicians, singers, poets and actors. The best make it to the national contest. And the winners there are invited to the festival, held in a different city each year.

Some just enter because they are artists, for the love of the stage or showcase their work. Others do it as part of their healing.

Each piece of art and each song tells a story. Sometimes it's about pain and post-traumatic stress. Others about breaking through the shackles of depression, sexual assault, substance abuse or something else untold. The art is every bit as good, and sometimes better, than what you'd see in a gallery in Los Angeles or New York.

The stage show is worthy of Broadway. VA brings these singers, musicians and actors together on Monday, and they create a show in seven days made up of music of the 50s, 60s and today. It's rock, it's soul, it's gospel and original pieces, all woven together in a beautiful tapestry of hope. Check out these clips from the 2013 show in Reno here.

It may seem like a miracle only a week in the works. The reality is it's a miracle, but one that is a culmination of work VA does every day to help heal people with each note they sing or stroke of the brush.

In Connie's case, he wrote his own poems and songs. Then he was struck in the head with a steel girder at work, causing a traumatic brain injury. The words and music inside his head died. Somehow -- maybe it was part of that miracle -- his wife saw a flyer on the wall of his local VA, advertising the festival. She urged him to try out.

"They literally saved my life. That first night, I went up to my hotel room and wrote my first song in years,"
he said.

That's what VA does.

Connie's story can be repeated a thousand times, but the theme is the same. There was the Vietnam veteran, so paralyzed by post-traumatic stress and mistrust, he couldn't hold a job or talk to anyone. Then he found a love of building model homes with toothpicks. They look like masterpieces when they are done.

"Before I did this, I couldn't talk to anyone," he told me last year.

Noah, one of the first Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq, was home four days when his military truck rolled down a hill and he became a quadriplegic. He rediscovered his passion for life at VA's Wheelchair Games, where he plays rugby, basketball and more. VA taught him how to snow ski at the winter sports clinic, and surf at the summer sports clinic. He now owns a company called Oscar Mike that makes American-made apparel.

The festival and the sports are just one small part of what VA does to save and change lives every day.

Don't believe all the negative VA stories you read, and certainly not those who who say it's broken and they'll fix it, or worse, shut it down. They don't know what they are talking about. They are wrong.

There is nothing -- no hospital, crisis center or organization -- that does everything VA does, with people who deeply care. I see it every day. And in my job, covering events like the creative arts festival, I get to tell those stories. Each time I do, I know it reaches someone who needs it.

If you're a veteran -- one who is in crisis or not -- you owe it to yourself to give VA a try. If you are in crisis, there are people who can help. Pick up the phone and dial 1-800-273-8255, then press 1. Or go online here.

Maybe you're like Connie, but if you are, and you don't have your own festival go to, know this: There are always people who love you, care about you and will miss you if you're gone. They might not know you are in pain. It's not a sin to ask for help.

If you're in North Carolina this week, come check out the art show and performance at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 114 E. Cameron Ave. The art exhibit is noon to 1:45 p.m. in Gerrard Hall. The stage show is 2 p.m. at Memorial Hall. Tickets are free but you have to call 919-286-0411, ext. 6070, to reserve your seats.

Check out the first-place art that will be on display at this year's festival here.

For more information on the event, or how to sign up for next year, click here.

Like the creative arts Facebook page here.

Check out a video on the event here.

The closing number at last year's festival, featuring country singer Michael Peterson.