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Veterans heal from traumatic experiences through visual art and music

Posted at 9:55 AM, May 06, 2022

CHICAGO — According to the Veteran’s Health Administration, 17 veterans take their own lives each day. 10 of them don’t seek help. But one nonprofit is trying to empower wounded veterans to heal through art and music.

Christopher Bickel enlisted in the Army right after 9/11, first as a linguist in military intelligence.

“I went to the 10th Special Forces Group in Colorado. I spent five years there in a small special reconnaissance element,” he said.

He spent over a decade in an Army special missions unit. During a deployment to the Middle East he says he was potentially exposed to toxic chemicals.

“I started getting sick immediately upon returning from a deployment, and that was high spiking fevers, muscle pains, joint pains,” said Bickel.

It also caused joint deterioration in his jaw.

“I had to go to oral maxillofacial surgery where they gave me a total joint replacement of that joint,” he said. “So, everything from here to here is a combination of titanium, zinc and plastic.”

This June, he will retire after 20 years of distinguished military service.

“For me, a special operations guy, for lack of a better term, came to be the only way I identified myself,” said Bickel. “That's the guy that I saw when I spoke to other people. That's how I try to portray myself. When it came to my relationship with my wife and my children, I think it was almost always the mission that came first. So, whenever I could no longer do that job, it was this horribly jarring experience. It was like losing your entire identity. I didn’t know who I was.”

Searching for a way to cope, he came across the CreatiVets songwriting program and traveled to Nashville to work with songwriters who helped him to discover and tell his story.

“I just knew that was in a somewhat dark place. And it was them recognizing that in me and us writing the song together that - it changed my life,” said Bickel. “It changed everything for me. So, the title of the song was ‘The Man I Left Behind.’”

The man Bickel left behind was not a fellow soldier, but a version of himself.

“I was this kind of bookish kid in rural Oklahoma who became a special operator. I had to leave that person behind to be successful at being in special operations, but now to be a successful father and husband in person, I even had to leave that guy behind to go be somebody else,” he said.

CreatiVets works with artistic institutions like the Grand Ole Opry and the Art Institute of Chicago to help veterans learn how to tell their stories through photography, sculpture, painting and songwriting.

Kyle Yepsen, CreatiVets deputy director handles a plaster cast helmet created by the organization’s executive director, Richard Casper.

“This is just one piece of a set of 20 of them,” said Yepsen. “He took these helmets and took them home, put them behind a barn out, exposed to the elements. Some of the pieces came back just like this. They're almost perfectly intact, whereas others were actually literally in crumbles. What it signifies is the veteran experience. It's a visualization of visual representation of how the impact of war can affect each individual veteran in different ways.”

It’s that recognition - that each soldier comes back with unique emotional experiences that are often difficult to process – that is central to CreatiVets mission.

“We really want to engage those veterans who are typically resistant or hesitant about traditional forms of therapy,” said Yepsen.

Since 2013, more than a thousand veterans in 48 states have been through the program.

“We've even started to serve veteran family members like spouses and children, because often if you serve the family of the veteran, you, in fact, help the veteran as well,” said Yepsen.

For veterans like Bickel, healing through music has re-defined his own identity. He’s now focused on reaching other fellow veterans.

“If I can get to a place in writing music where I can sit down with a veteran and help them tell their story in the same way that these other songwriters have helped me. For me, that's the next mission,” said Bickel.

It’s a mission to ensure that no soldier is left behind.