Afghanistan veterans find healing in their creative sides

VANCOUVER AND LONDON, England — Canadian military veteran Stephen Clews never imagined trading the trenches for an art studio.

In 2010, the Aldergrove, B.C. native returned from his second tour in Afghanistan feeling angry. A back injury from an improvised explosive device (IED) blast meant he had to leave the war and his friends behind. Clews started drinking heavily and getting into fights.

“I did not know what to do,” he recalls. “And it got worse as the days went on.”

But his destructive behaviour changed after he met Foster Eastman; The Vancouver artist invited Clews to his studio to help design a mural meant to commemorate Canadians killed in Afghanistan.

“I’m just an average Canadian who wants to help,” Foster says, describing how he started building the mural after hearing about a rash of suicides by Canadian veterans.

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The mural stands an impressive three-by-six metres. It’s made with papier mâché, with paper ripped from old military training pamphlets. A Canadian flag is painted in the background. In the foreground is the image of a Canadian soldier holding the hand of an Afghan child.

Jeff Semple/Global News

Most poignantly, the mural is made up of 162 panels — one for every Canadian killed in Afghanistan. The panels include their names, ages and ranks, along with the causes and dates of their deaths.

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Clews says he knew nothing about art but found the mural construction process therapeutic.

“The first stages, where we were putting the pages on the canvases, wasn’t so bad,” he recalls. “But then you start adding the names and you realize you’re adding your friends’ names on the mural and you feel like you have a responsibility to make sure this is cared for.

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“It’s like tending to your friend’s headstone, their gravestone. You’re cleaning it, you’re preparing it and you’re making it presentable to the world around you,” Clews says.

The mural is part of a larger art therapy project run by the Veterans Transition Network — a Canadian charity that supports veterans after they return home. Clews, along with about dozen other veterans, also carved the names of fallen friends into a wooden casket. They even wrote a stage play with scenes based on their experiences in Afghanistan.

The veterans have toured the art pieces and theatre performances across Canada. And, to mark Remembrance Day 2015, they performed on an international stage for the first time — displaying their work for a British audience at the Canadian High Commission in London, England.

“I would hope that this (art therapy project) will connect with the United Kingdom,” says Marvin Westwood. The trauma counsellor and professor at the University of British Columbia has worked with veterans for 20 years. He says the artwork provides healing in a way traditional therapy often can’t.

“Many veterans aren’t too talkative,” Westwood says. “But they’re doers. So they’ll get up and take a role and portray a character; rather than sit and talk with a therapist.”

READ MORE: Veterans Affairs Minister vows to change the way Canada treats vets

Canadian Major Chuck Mackinnon adds that soldiers are trained to be tough and stoic, and many are therefore reluctant to seek help. Mackinnon joined the Canadian military in 1978. He says he suffered for years from survivor’s guilt after young soldiers were killed under his command. Mackinnon is part of the Veterans Transition Network’s theatre performance. In perhaps its most heart-wrenching scene, he sobs loudly over the body of Canadian Master Corporal Colin Bason — a 28-year-old father who was killed in 2007.

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“It’s very emotionally draining,” Mackinnon says of reliving the memory on-stage.

“The main reason why I got involved in the production was the fact that, one year after we got back, one of my soldiers killed himself. And if he’d known that veterans transition counselling was available, we might be having a different discussion. But he’s not the only guy.”

Estimates suggest more than 50 Canadians who served in Afghanistan have killed themselves. Mackinnon says these performances about prevention.

“Each and every single night, a veteran walked up from the audience and said,’‘I think I need this.'”

And the performance at the Canadian High Commission in London was no exception. After the show, representatives with the British military expressed interest in launching a similar program for their own veterans.

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