This ceiling tile by Iraq war veteran Jennifer DeGaetano will be on display at Cappetta’s in West Haven. She said art helps her healing process.(Kristin Stoller — New Haven Register)
GUILFORD >> Vietnam War veteran John Jones was the only sailor who survived a fire on his ship, and since then he has been plagued by the “what ifs” and demons of post-traumatic stress disorder.
But at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System’s West Haven campus, Jones feels like he can let some of these demons out — through art.
“I saw things that people shouldn’t see,” said Jones, who was only 19 when he served in Vietnam. “You can’t unsee things. They play on your mind, you know?”
The Guilford Free Library is hosting an art exhibit throughout November of pieces by Jones and other Connecticut veterans. The veterans’ service ranges from the World War II era to Afghanistan.
The show includes work from artists representing the Giant Steps Program at the West Haven VA and the Rocky Hill Veterans Center programs, among others, organizer John Henningson said.
“The Giant Steps program is designed for those with a disability who are somewhat reluctant to expose themselves to the public for whatever reason,” he said. “Art, however, gives them a way to express themselves and show another side of their personality.”
In the ’70s, Jones said he turned to the VA when he couldn’t stop crying and screaming weeks after returning from Vietnam, but no one knew what PTSD was back then and he was sent away, he said.
“It was either jump off a building or go to downtown New Haven,” Jones, a Milford resident, said, recounting his turn to drugs and alcohol.
In 2004, he came back to the West Haven VA after the “drugs had taken their toll” and was able to be helped through medication, therapy and art. He displayed a collage he made of pieces from the ’50s that make him feel good, such as his old skateboard and a decal off his old Volkswagen.
Sandy Benge, who served in the Air Force during the ’80s, said the art therapy program has been an answer to so many of her problems associated with PTSD. She was the only woman in her group of 200 men based in Montana.
“I don’t dread coming to the VA anymore,” Benge said. “It’s like a breath of fresh air. I have a smile on my face when I used to have a grimace.”
Through art, she said she finds acceptance and healing in a non-judgmental environment.
As a Giant Steps Program volunteer, Henningson said he was impressed by the quality of the artwork of the veterans he sat with. Though the exhibit is in Guilford, he said it will feature art from veterans across the state.
Jennifer DeGaetano, an Army veteran from Operation Iraqi Freedom, displayed a painting she made on a ceiling tile, which can be seen at Cappetta’s Pizza in West Haven. The tile shows a female soldier dreaming of pizza, which DeGaetano said was what she missed most when she was in Iraq from 2004 to 2005.
“It’s a very valuable program to me because it is a safe environment where I can express myself freely without judgment,” she said. “I’m going through a recovery process with my peers and not alone. It’s something meaningful that I can look forward to.”
In the Giant Steps program, DeGaetano said she gets lost in the art and doesn’t have to think or talk about what she went through if she doesn’t want to.
Veterans interested in showcasing their work can contact Henningson at email@example.com.
Henningson is also raising money to purchase and install signs in front of the residences of the more than 800 living veterans in Guilford. These signs would be installed in November to celebrate Veterans Day, he saiid.