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(K-LOVE Closer Look) -- Every day more than 20 U.S. veterans take their own lives, driven by painful wounds that are mostly invisible. Untreated PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] corrodes bodies and minds and traps many soldiers in an unending nightmare of anger and anxiety. Healing from this mental anguish is possible -- but must begin with working through the ‘moral injury’ of combat. 

“This is not something that is typically dealt with in clinical settings,’ says Ryan Rogers of PTSD Foundation of America. The training that transforms a recruit into a good solider – which includes the necessary mandate to kill –nearly always conflicts with their sense of right and wrong. “A lot of these individuals that are exposed to combat get to see the depravity of man firsthand – and that really challenges their inner core belief systems they thought they had nailed down…and now everything is in disarray.” Over years of assisting veterans suffering PTSD, Rogers has seen many successfully overcome mental struggle when they trace the root of debilitating guilt, connect to a refreshing spirituality and begin to embrace new mission and purpose for their civilian life. 

Many vet groups offer friendship, understanding, hope and help, some as community centers, others in a more clinical capacity. PTSD Foundation offers peer-to-peer support called Warrior Groups established in cities nationwide; but a different and somewhat unique effort to restore vets utilizes leather and beads and glue and paint. 

Since 1971, Help Heal Vets has distributed more than 30-million arts and crafts kits – model cars, leather work, jewelry, needlepoint, clock-making – kits provided to veterans in hospitals or at home – free of charge.

Samples of crafter kits
[Photo Credit: healvets.org] 

The craft kits are specifically designed to assist recovering vets with certain rehab goals like improving fine motor skills or cognitive function or managing the stress that can lead to substance abuse. The kits even come with labels doctors can use to match to a veteran’s specific therapeutic need. 

But does art therapy work? “Yes,” assures Joe McClain, CEO of Help Heal Vets. “Arts and crafts as healing has been around for over a 100-years...got it’s start in WWI and has been used by clinicians in every conflict throughout." Internal surveys reveal more than 90% of vets with chronic pain found value in their kits and 95% of PTSD sufferers say working with their hands to do the crafts helps them have a more positive outlook on life.

Help Heal Vets receives no government money and relies entirely on private donations. To continue to meet nationwide requests, they use recycled materials whenever possible, such as in their leather kits, which are made from old airplane seats donated by Southwest Airlines. And whether it’s a bracelet a vet makes for his granddaughter or a patriotic refrigerator magnet he paints for his neighbor, the positive results continue to be encouraging. 

“One story really resonates with me,” recounts McClain, speaking of one of their volunteers. A Vietnam vet, an alcoholic, who through the VA ended up with one of their kits -- a huge sailing ship. And “he said, ‘if I can do this, I can do anything’ – it took him a year to do it, but it just helped with his healing process working on it day by day.” The man is now a contractor, happily married and helps fellow vets readjust to civilian life. 

“He credits doing that kit to what really helped turn his life around.”