Washington Eric Edmondson cannot express in words what he remembers about the fall day in Iraq 18 months ago when a roadside bomb and then a heart attack left him with shrapnel wounds and brain damage. The 26-year-old veteran is no longer able to eat, walk or talk. But he can pick up a paint brush.
When he does, his father sees in the former Army sergeant's face glimmers of memory and healing as he seeks to paint his thoughts on blank paper.
"I can tell by his expression he's enjoying it," Ed Edmondson said of the art therapy class Eric has taken in the weeks since he left a Veterans Affairs hospital in Richmond, Va., for a private rehabilitation center in Chicago. "I don't care what it looks like. It's beautiful to me."
Veterans with traumatic combat injuries often find healing power in art. They communicate through pencil and charcoal drawings, sculpture and painting. Their images range from calm, colorful landscapes to mangled vehicles, prisoners and carnage. It's a therapy recognized as especially helpful to those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yet veteran and military hospitals employ few art therapists. The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and Walter Reed Army Medical Center provide limited art therapy classes. VA hospitals in Baltimore, Richmond and Philadelphia offer none. Nationwide, VA medical centers employ 691 therapists; of those, 36 are music and 18 are art therapists, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Paula Howie, president of the American Art Therapy Association, was director of art therapy at Walter Reed from 1980 to 2002. She had eight art therapists on staff during that time. Now the medical center has one full-time and one part-time art therapist.
"I think what was happening is that there were a lot of funding cuts," said Howie, who went into private practice in Silver Spring, Md., after retiring from Walter Reed. "People started to say, 'Do you want a nurse, or would you like to have an art therapist?'"
Army medical researchers have noted high rates of PTSD among Iraq war veterans, especially those wounded in combat. A study led by Col. Charles Hoge at Walter Reed found that wounded soldiers had a 32 percent chance of experiencing PTSD symptoms, which can include psychological distress, depression, substance abuse, hyper-vigilance and diminished appetite for previous hobbies and interests. Uninjured soldiers who were studied had a PTSD rate of 14 percent.
Bob Ault, an art therapist who works with veterans in Topeka, Kan., said the scarcity of art therapists in veteran and military hospitals is unfortunate. "Art therapy is a nonthreatening way to help people with PTSD experience their feelings," he said.