A core program of the American Legion Auxiliary is its Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation program (VA&R) which concentrates on providing care and comfort to our heroic U.S. service members who are so highly deserving of everything we can possibly do for them. Since late August of this year, I have had the honor of serving as the National VA&R Southern Division Chairman, one of the five divisions in the US. A highlight of that National appointment was an invitation to attend the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival (NVCAF) recently held in Kalamazoo, Michigan from October 28th to November 3rd.

The key purpose of the National Veterans Creative Arts competition and festival is to recognize veterans for their creative accomplishments and to educate and demonstrate to communities throughout the country the therapeutic benefits of the arts. The American Legion Auxiliary has played a key role in NVCAF as a co-sponsor of the event for the last twenty years along with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Each year across the nation, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities use creative arts as one form of rehabilitative treatment to help Veterans recover from and cope with physical and emotional disabilities. Veterans who have enrolled at VA health care facilities compete in local creative arts competitions and, in 2019, 3,552 veterans participated in local competitions at 130 medical facilities across the US in any of 100 categories. Performing arts competition pertained to all aspects of music, drama, dance and creative writing. Others participated in 51 categories of the visual arts division with creations ranging from oil painting to leatherwork to paint-by-number kits, and there was also competition in creative writings. In those local competitions, forty-five percent (45%) were first-timers with the remainder being returning participants. Male Veterans comprised 77% of this year’s participants, and females made up 23% participation.

There were 5,648 entries submitted to a national committee of judges. From those, 148 Gold Medal winners from 65 VA facilities were selected and earned an invitation to participate in the 2019 National Festival, hosted by the Battle Creek VA Medical Center in Michigan.

Throughout the week, a variety of activities took place, many tailored to the particular talents and interests of attendees. Many rehearsals and auditions were held as performers worked to earn a part in the stage show which was being planned in great detail. There as a workshop providing writers an opportunity to speak about their works and how writing affected their health, emotional well-being and recovery. Visual artists and anyone else with interest had the opportunity to try their hand at a new craft during a session termed “Almost Chihuly” which was great fun, produced some new artwork and again illustrated the incredible talent of many veterans there.

Writers had the opportunity to read their winning pieces to Festival attendees in a Writers Showcase. Winning entries in the Military Combat Experience art category were shown one evening; each entry related to the veteran’s personal experience in a recognized war or conflict. As each piece was shown, a written statement was read explaining how the art related to that veteran’s particular wartime experience. Additional activities included a visit to the 90-acre historic campus of the Gilmore Car Museum, and Halloween night provided an opportunity to attend a viewing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. Veterans and their guests were offered the opportunity to attend Karaoke nights when the camaraderie and support was so very evident. An impressive game room was available to all attendees throughout the week for various forms of friendly competition and additional opportunities to socialize. A vast assortment of foods, snacks and beverages were available daily in a Hospitality Room which was provided and staffed by the Department of Michigan American Legion Auxiliary members.

Many veterans traveled with companions who serve as caregivers as well, and in numerous cases, service dogs, therapy or companion dogs and even a companion cat joined the veterans. Recognizing the stress and commitment required of caregivers and companions, numerous activities were available for them as well. Many of them joined ALA members at the Kalamazoo Candle Company where they crafted their own unique scented candle, and many also visited the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, a “hands-on” museum focusing on science, technology and history. A companion social allowed them to meet and interact with other caregiver/companions. Members of the American Legion Auxiliary and Blue Star Mothers met with the companion group as well for a social and civic project of blanket tying with the finished products being earmarked for other veterans. Or, if the companions preferred, they could simply enjoy some “down time” for themselves as their veteran took part in workshops or rehearsals.

The highlight of the week was held on Sunday at Miller Auditorium on the campus of Western Michigan as the Festival neared its conclusion. There was a beautiful art exhibit showing first place artwork from the various categories which allowed the artists to talk with guests about their creations. Another exhibit showcased the Gold Medal-winning creative writing entries.

With multiple Grammy and Country Music Award nominee, Michael Peterson serving as Master of Ceremonies for the stage show on Sunday afternoon, a large crowd gathered for the live stage show had been developed and rehearsed throughout the week. And what a performance! The veterans’ talents were incredible, and they definitely showed why they had received Gold Medals and been given the opportunity to attend the NVCAF. They played many different musical instruments including piano, guitars, drums and accordion. Besides the outstanding chorus, there were solos, group performances, dances and powerful dramatic readings. The week of festivities was wrapped up Sunday evening at the Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Museum in nearby Portage, Michigan. As the veterans arrived by bus for the closing celebration, the marching band of West Michigan University was on hand to salute them and to add one more special touch to their adventure.

Those are some of the facts and figures surrounding the 2019 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. What’s hardest to explain is the impact that this week had on me. Prior to arriving in Kalamazoo on Sunday, October 27th, I had been told by members who had already experienced an NVCAF event that I should expect a life changing event and that I would return a different person. I have smart friends, because they were right!

I had never met my counterparts from across the country (Central Division Chairman Ann Crawford from Iowa, Eastern Division Chairman Paulette Caron from Maryland, Northwestern Division Chairman Barbara Washburn from Nebraska, and Western Division Chairman Darlene Allen from New Mexico) but within 24 hours we had become sisters in the truest form. We were also joined by Vickie Koutz, VA&R National Chairman, along with ALA National President Nicole Clapp, ALA National VP Kathy Daudistel, and ALA Children & Youth Committee Chairman Lisa Williamson, as well as Chrystal Daulton and Sara Fowler from ALA National HQ. The entire group worked seamlessly from the beginning; schedules which had been drafted prior to our arrival were ignored as everyone wanted to be part of every activity. Although we had no idea what we might experience at the onset of this adventure, we welcomed each and every challenge and opportunity to make the week successful and enjoyable for all who had traveled to participate in the Festival.

As American Legion Auxiliary members lucky enough to attend this annual event, there were duties to be performed throughout the week. We assisted with check-ins and then greeted each veteran and guests during registration periods. Each day our Committee members had the duties (privileges) of greeting and counting veterans and their companions as they came for meals in the dining hall. Some needed assistance with getting food from the buffet line, and relationships began forming immediately. Certain veterans relied on specific committee members for their assistance; it was very obvious they developed an affinity for that individual early on. Some of us also became “sitters” for the service dogs while those veterans made their way through the buffet lines during meals. Tuesday was filled with our Committee working in the costume shop. Participants in the performing arts categories needed costumes, so our day was consumed with fittings, repairs, ironing and steaming, and those duties continued into Wednesday as well. We folded programs, we ran errands, and two of our members assisted a companion in finalizing a college paper that was due and had become a struggle for her to complete with a deadline looming.

As we worked to do anything we could for the guests, we learned bits and pieces about those attending and relationships grew. You never knew what might develop as we awaited the veterans at meal time; sometimes we grabbed a veteran for an impromptu line dance, and we posed for group pictures. On Halloween we wore silly costumes which were a big hit. Outside of meal time and other duties, we also had the opportunity to sit in on the various workshops, whether writing, visual art or musical rehearsals.

As the wife of a Coast Guard combat veteran and a proud native of North Carolina, one of my personal priorities was to meet every US Coast Guardsman (“Coastie”) who was attending and to personally greet and interact in some way with veterans who were representing any of the North Carolina VA locations. I’m proud to say I did that and, in doing so, met some of the kindest, most talented and incredible individuals. One of those young veterans asked if I wanted to adopt him and his companion….it was a very tempting offer!

Needless to say, the interaction with the veterans and the opportunity to witness first-hand the variety and caliber of talent among the veterans was the absolute best part of the week. Some of the veterans in Kalamazoo had participated in past National Festivals and were excited to reconnect with others they had met on previous trips. There were quite a few who at the beginning of the week were almost withdrawn during our initial encounters; but each day there was evidence such resistance was diminishing and before the end of our time together, there was great camaraderie and friendship. I witnessed veterans reach out to other veterans who were struggling in any manner. I saw the smiles of satisfaction and accomplishment and the pure joy that can be recognized while in the company of people who appreciated the success or who recognized or identified with their challenges.

The wounds that many veterans carried weren’t always evident….many scars were internal and many struggles continue. I heard comments about their experiences with illnesses, homelessness, alcoholism, drugs or PTSD. Some were almost celebratory with their progress while others made it clear struggles often continue.

It was very evident creative arts had been, and continue to be, a release, a therapy or a way to cope with many of those struggles. Numerous veterans shared the belief their art form had been what saved them, what gave them hope and what had brought them back to being the person they wanted to be. Whatever their reasons for participating in the arts and their incredible success as Gold Medal winners in the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to witness some of their talents. I hope to have another opportunity to see many of my new friends at another NVCAF in the future.

Just before leaving Kalamazoo, one of the veterans slipped a coin into my hand and thanked me for what I and my associates had done during the week. The coin was inscribed “to someone who makes a difference.” In reading those words, I teared up….if he only understood what a lasting impression he and the other veterans had made on me…..in my world, they made a difference!

Janice H. MacLeod of Harrisburg is the Southern Division Chairman of the Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation National Committee for 2019-20.

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