In Colorado Springs, health benefits secured and on display

A nasty back and forth erupted in the last hours before the health care reform bill passed last week over whether the bill would cut TRICARE health benefits for veterans. In the end it was clear that all TRICARE plans fell under the health reform bill‘s minimum essential coverage.

Joseph Zabinski with a watercolor he said represents “the undefined enemy.” (Volckhausen)
Joseph Zabinski with a watercolor he said represents “the undefined enemy.” (Volckhausen)

On the ground in Colorado, the mental health benefits of TRICARE coverage are literally on display from now through June at the Colorado springs Fine Arts Center, the product of an 11-week course called “Military Creative Expressions” for Wounded Warriors– military personnel suffering a variety of physical and mental wounds, including post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

Thirty minutes before the exhibition opening Friday, a tall broad-shouldered man in military uniform walked slowly with an older couple to the back of the quiet gallery where his art was on display.

“Yeah an interview later should be fine,” said Spc. Joseph Zabinski, 29, who served in Iraq from Oct. 2006 until Dec. 24th 2007, after I introduced myself. “But just let me show my parents around first if you don’t mind.”

Over the past two months, Zabinski along with five other veterans participated in an 11-week course called “Military Creative Expressions” for Wounded Warriors, military personnel suffering a variety of physical and mental wounds, including post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury (PTSD and TBI).

Soldiers mingled with artists, program directors, and an interested public during the opening on March 26th of the exhibition of a veteran art. The exhibition is the result of a collaborative effort between Pike Peak Behavioral Health Group (PPBHG) and FAC dedicated to helping veterans recover from the war through art. The classes were held in the FAC’s Bemis School of Art.

Kim Nguyen, Art Therapy Instructor and PPBHG’s creative program manager, instructs the course and interprets art with the soldiers; and Barbara C. Tise, Inc., a private, psychotherapy practice owned and operated by Barbara Tise, provides clinical support during the class.

“While we are teaching them a skill they can use for the rest of their lives, the program also allows the soldiers an outlet for troubles they cannot verbally express but they can with imagery,” said Nguyen.

Soldiers participating in the course were also enthusiastic about the therapeutic value of art.

“When I get into it everything just disappears and I can just focus on the art. All my troubles just float away,” Zabinski said.

In an April 2009 a study by the Rand Corp., found that nearly 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans – 300,000 in total- surveyed reported symptoms of PTSD or major depression yet slightly more than half have received treatment. Diagnoses of PTSD has risen “quite steadily” over the past seven years.

Staff Sgt. Luke Volkomener, 25, has served three tours of duty since enlisting in September 2002: first in 2003, shortly after the US invasion of Iraq; then in 2005, during the elections in Afghanistan; and finally in the 2007 surge.

“I enlisted because watched a lot of war movies, I wanted a challenge and I figured if I were to fight somebody I wanted to fight in their backyard rather than ours,” said Volkomener.

His first two tours “were not bad,” yet, of his 2007 tour with the surge, Volkomener said “we encountered damn near everything. We had casualties we encountered civilian casualties… After that, my perspective on life changed…

“Why take out the trash when it’s not life and death? Just can’t understand why people get so upset about things that won’t kill them. After you’re deployed for 15 months that becomes your lifestyle, and you have constant order and purpose… You’re looking up and down the same streets for IEDs and watching out for snipers everyday, and so back home, when I’m doing something like driving to Walmart, you can’t help but stay ready for something out of the ordinary… Normal life is not normal.”

Volkomener had not done serious art since high school classes but he feels the revival of art in his life has been “a productive step in processing through my injuries.”

The courses taught the veterans to experiment with different techniques and approaches to painting. Nguyen, who received her master’s degree in Art Therapy in October 2009, would also discuss with the soldiers the subconscious implications of their paintings.

Some soldiers used the art as an exhibition of spirituality.

Staff Sgt. Robert Kinnon shuffled through the exhibition with a cane but whose laugh instantly put those around him at ease.

“I’m just a spiritual man. This is the open door to heaven and hopefully the sky is blue and the gates are golden,” said Kinnon while explaining the spiritual meaning of his acrylic “Gateway to Heaven”.

Another pencil sketch he made during the first class illustrated the story of Jonah and the Whale.

“After submitting to God, the whale to spits Jonah back onto land giving him another chance. I’ve been spit back onto land. God gives us another chance,” said Kinnon.

FAC Board of Trustees Member Vic Tise, a retired army officer, said the FAC is “thrilled that this idea turned into reality.”

The courses will “absolutely” be extended into the future and also will be expanded to offer courses to help military spouses with mental health issues.

The courses are funded through TRICARE, the Department of Defense single-payer health insurance policy. TRICARE provides civilian health benefits for military personnel, military retirees, and their dependents, including some members of the Reserve Component.

Course Therapist Barbara Tise, Colorado Springs resident, whose husband and father both served in the military is quick to point out that the project is not government mandated but rather “the community taking care of the soldiers.”

Tise said, “I would donate my time to this project. We need to protect [the veterans], helping them back home. Lord knows they deserve it.”

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