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Veterans visualize hope through photos

Project helps those with mental health issues redefine their trauma

Amanda Smith pulls up a photo she took while visiting the San Juan Bautista mission she shot on her iPhone. Smith, a veteran who has PTSD, participated in the Veteran's Photo Recovery Project, and continues to take photos because she says it teaches her to see things differently. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Sometimes an image is all it takes to damage a soul.

For Amanda Smith, multiple images of war, viewed for years as part of her job in military intelligence, led to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

She viewed thousands of live video feeds of beheadings, images of soldiers blown up or being shot in the head for four years starting in 2001. She was an Army counter-intelligence specialist, working for the National Security Agency (NSA). She spent an additional nine years as a civilian working for the agency.

She was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2010, where she endured more trauma in the form of daily rocket attacks. But it was the constant bombardment of images that had already begun her decline into mental illness, she said. Smith would not feel the full impact of these experiences until she returned home.

"Everything you are trained to do is to keep going. I was pretty numb before I went to Kandahar. Then my PTSD hit a precipice. Six months after coming back, I ended up quitting my NSA job," she said.

Even a NATO Medal of Honor she received in 2010 for saving lives while stationed in Kandahar could not ease her sense of survivor's guilt.

"I promptly buried that medal in the bottom of my parent's closet in Mississippi because it only reminded me of the lives I didn't save," she said.

The military trains soldiers to go off to war, but it doesn't train a returning veteran for civilian life, she said. Smith recalled only receiving a questionnaire to assess her needs as she left the Army.

"It's just a piece of paper. Check 'yes' or 'no' if you want to talk to someone. I didn't want to talk to anyone," she said.

Everyday sounds, such as a car backfiring, reminded her of war. But most of the time, she just couldn't feel anything anymore because she was used to suppressing her emotions.

"You can't be emotional if a Humvee blows up. You can't have emotion because another five Humvees are going to blow up after it," she said. "The only emotion I had was anger. I'm actually a very sweet and compassionate person. But I did what vets do. Then I turned to drugs and alcohol."

Smith wandered the country in an RV, eventually landing in California.

"I was so out of it that I'd park my RV on the street, and I slept on the street because I couldn't find it. I went from making $120,000 a year to going around on the street with wet socks. I attempted suicide two times. I didn't understand why I survived when there were so many beautiful people who didn't," she said.

Using photography as therapy

Smith, 40, a Palo Alto resident, could have been one of the estimated 22 veterans who die by suicide every day, according to statistics from the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA). But instead she found salvation through the VA's Homeless Veteran Rehabilitation Program in Menlo Park, which provided her with the counseling and care she needed to get her life back on track.

She was recommended for an innovative creative alternative therapy, The Veterans Photo Recovery Project, which helped Smith to feel again. The program helps veterans with PTSD and other mental health disorders to substitute the harrowing imagery of trauma with images of hope and to reconcile their conflicting feelings through photography and prose.

(See a collection of the veterans' photography here.)

The photo rehabilitation project has helped 60 to 70 veterans since 2008. It was founded by VA registered nurse Susan Quaglietti. A VA cardiology nurse for 25 years, Quaglietti sought to branch out in her nursing career and attended the Menlo Park VA's Psycho-Social Fellowship in Rehabilitation from 2008 to 2009. After the fellowship, Quagiletti studied for a master's degree in humanities at Dominican University and graduated in 2012.

"I worked with a professor who was well-versed in the use of using creative expression for developing a new narrative," she said.

Quaglietti also took photography classes, which she loved, and felt that immersing herself in picture taking was a powerful spiritual experience. Following the model of art-therapy classes traditionally used to help patients process mental health issues, she thought that taking pictures would be a way to help veterans reconnect with their feelings and find meaning in life again.

"As a cardiology nurse helping people at the end of life, I saw that you've got to be truthful and honest with people. They need someone to bear witness to them," she said. The same goes for traumatized veterans, she added.

In 2012, she started offering the four-week photo recovery class on the Menlo Park campus to clients in the homeless veterans program and those struggling with substance abuse, depression, PTSD and issues such as sexual trauma. The participants are mostly referred by photo project co-facilitator Ryan Gardner, a VA clinical social worker.

Photography works well as a therapeutic device because it helps a mind create order out of disorder. "You have to think about the composition. You have to focus, frame and process," she said. That's also what people also do in therapy, added Quaglietti, who is now in mental health nursing in the VA's residential-treatment programs.

The methodology of the Veterans Photo Recovery Project is simple: Take a cell phone or camera and go out and shoot images of things that one likes. Then review the photographs and see what stands out and what it might mean. Where does one find beauty? Where did one encounter grace?

Quaglietti has just one guideline: Try to take pictures of things that give one hope. She focuses on hope because it is the word veterans bring up the most as they started to process their feelings, she said.

The veterans also choose 10 words that have meaning for them — words such as "strength," "resilience," "honor," "peace," "change," "perspective," "freedom" and "reflection." Sometimes the veterans take photographs that are symbolic of the words; other times they later ascribe the word to a photograph while discussing the images with Quaglietti. They use the word in a sentence to describe the image, she said. Oftentimes, the chosen words change as the four-week process goes on.

"It's like getting glasses," she said. "Does this look better? Or this?" she said, mimicking an optometrist flipping lenses back and forth until the eye-chart letters look clear. The veterans try on different words and photos, homing in on what makes them see their lives more clearly.

As part of their therapy, the veterans work as a group and discuss what the photographs mean to them. Being together helps the participants build connections with other people and express thoughts and feelings, she said.

The six to 10 veterans also receive individual help from an art therapist and staff as they develop their portfolios, deciding on which photos to include in personal "hope books." In the end, they have a book of six images with captions that incorporate one word each from their list.

Now until Nov. 18, for the first time, the photographs and words of 20 veterans will be on public exhibition at Cubberley Community Center.

Rediscovering hope

Last week, Quaglietti and Cubberley artists Conrad Johnson and Ernest Regna hung the photos on the whitewashed walls of studio U7. Twenty large picture frames each displayed a veterans' six images and captions.

Quaglietti — slender and animated, with wavy salt-and-pepper hair — said the veterans' work never fails to amaze her.

Recurring subjects have popped up in the photos over the years: the medications vets take to treat PTSD; tattoos; their children; and crushed buildings representing personal destruction. A seedling sprouting between broken concrete and barren walls symbolizes new growth and new hope.

Quagiletti talked about an image of a yellow flower missing a petal. It represents imperfection, the veteran had decided. Yet there was beauty in that imperfection, and from such recognition comes acceptance, Quaglietti said.

Veterans often have issues reconciling their actions in war; many have survivor's guilt. Asking for forgiveness — from others or from oneself — is one of the most difficult things to do, she said.

A stark image in the exhibit of a Beanie Baby mounted on a machine gun presents an uncomfortable incongruity. Quaglietti discussed the photograph at the time with the veteran, and she suggested that he express himself through a prayer. Quaglietti was stunned by what he wrote: "Grant me forgiveness for being absent, for my secrets, for the pain caused to others, for destruction, and for disregard of life."

"For anyone to do that, that's really hard," Quaglietti said of asking for forgiveness.

She turned to a photograph that Smith took one day while sitting in Quaglietti's office. Discussing how Smith was feeling at the time, Quaglietti had pointed to a T-shirt the veteran was wearing, which seemed to sum up her emotions. Smith turned the camera toward her chest and took a haunting self-portrait: an eagle is surrounded by barbed wire, and Smith's U.S. Army lanyard is draped over it.

"The honest acceptance of my barb wire past, my present commitment to service, and my future wings is heartfelt," Smith wrote in her caption.

"I have this barbed wire around my heart and my emotions," Smith recalled of that image last week.

Though she said the photo program has helped her to find meaning and beauty again, such revelations didn't happen overnight. Smith first used photography for more practical reasons. PTSD has made it difficult to remember events, times and places.

"I took pictures of door numbers and business cards. I could look back at the pictures and remember things because it had a time stamp and date," she said.

Photography also substituted the horrific images of beheadings, shootings and rocket attacks with ones from the present and the future.

"It's really easy to focus on your past. It's a much, much harder thing to grasp this idea of hope, of being in the present. The photograph does that — the photograph captures the present. Because you took these pictures, it's this undeniable truth. It's not someone telling you about hope," she said.

Smith has taken photos of clouds that looked like angel wings; flowers and trees and animals; color; and herself in a Mardi Gras mask. There are images filled with light: a vibrant sunset over the VA campus; a blazing sun that appeared while rounding a trail at the Stanford Dish.

"I started going out and having this thing called fun," said Smith, who has sparkling blue eyes and sports a white, windswept, pixie haircut and fanciful reptile earrings.

Many veterans ask themselves why they survived and why they experienced the things that have so changed their lives. Smith now realizes her experiences enable her to help others, she said. On Sept. 15, she was selected to work at the Homeless Veteran Rehabilitation Program as a health technician.

"I am a walking example of the benefits of this program and the alternative creative therapies that the VA and people like Susan Quaglietti offer to veterans of the Homeless Veteran Rehabilitation Program and First Step (a residential program for treatment of addiction)," she said.

"I've turned these shadows in my life around. I was asking, 'God, why am I still here?' Now I've turned that into: 'Maybe I went through all of this for a reason — to help save other people's lives.'"

Conrad Johnson, who has volunteered to teach photography to the veterans, decorated the Cubberley exhibition space on Nov. 2 with American flags. A survivor of childhood trauma who has PTSD, he reflected on how photography can move a life from a past of pain to a present and future of hope. He said he knows what the veterans are going through.

"Our lives are a tapestry. ... PTSD hits this tapestry and tears and cuts and bruises the fabric of the soul. You end up with a weaving with all of these strands that snag you on the torn tapestry. That's PTSD.

"Photography reweaves and darns those strands of fabric. You'll never be the same after the trauma; you can never weave it back. But you can find ways to bring in new threads to weave into this tapestry," he said.

Veterans photography exhibit and events

All events are free and will be held at Cubberley Community Center, Studio U7, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

Exhibit: Through Nov. 18

What: "Seeing Hope Photographs from the Veterans Photo Recovery Project."

When: Thursday-Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

Veterans Day events: Nov. 11

What: "Seeing Hope": Susan Quaglietti discusses using photography and prose to assist mental health recovery, 10 a.m.

• "Writing With Heart": Workshop with Barbara Leivent, 11 a.m.

• "Yoga Nidra": Demonstration by Ellen Noon, 1 p.m.

• "Heart of a Soldier": Photography workshop with Conrad Johnson, 2 p.m.

Film screening: Nov. 18

What: Closing reception and film: "Visions of Warriors," directed by Ming Lai, a documentary about the Veterans Photo Recovery Project.

When: Reception starts at noon; discussion starts at 3 p.m.; film screening at 4 p.m.

More information is available at facebook.com/visionsofwarriors.

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