( May 14, 2014 )
Michael Hawley, Iraq Veteran, Co-founded Loose Collective Of ArtistsBy SUSAN DUNNE, firstname.lastname@example.org | Hartford Courant
Michael Hawley's father was in the Coast Guard, his uncles served in Vietnam, and his grandfather served in World War II.
His great-grandfather was a major general, a top-ranked Army surgeon during World War II. In fact, Hawley can trace his ancestors' military service all the way back to the American Revolution.
So when the law-enforcement career Hawley hoped for didn't pan out, he did what came naturally: He joined the Army. That was in 2003.
"When I started signing up, Iraq was just an idea, a plan that hadn't kicked off yet. By the time I signed the papers Iraq had started," said Hawley, a 1997 graduate of Glastonbury High who later graduated from Northeastern University. "I didn't believe in Iraq. I didn't believe it was a right or just war."
But he was in the Army now, so off he went. After lengthy training in Alaska, he served 12 months as an infantryman in Mosul, which was violent, and Sinjar, which wasn't. Then he and the rest of the Alaskan Stryker Brigade went back to Fairbanks, the first step toward going home. Unexpectedly, that's when the real trauma started.
"The first day back was kind of chaotic, you celebrate, you drink, you party. But on the second day, rumors started flying that we were not done with Iraq and we had to get sent back," he said.
For the next three weeks, while waiting for re-deployment, the servicemen lost it in small and large ways. "There was fighting, drinking, a few people went AWOL," he said. "It just ripped the whole unit apart. People had breakdowns."
Soldiers claiming mental-health issues were allowed to stay back. "People who didn't go back with us were considered cowards. They were ostracized as weak people," Hawley said.
Hawley, who suspected he was suffering from mental-health issues himself, kept silent and went back. The four months he served in Baghdad were traumatic. "They had bigger bombs, better snipers, more vicious factions," Hawley said. "In Mosul, there was anything from IEDs to snipers to rigging a whole house to explode when you went in ... but compared to Baghdad it was still safer."
Many of his compatriots died in Baghdad. Hawley got through it physically unhurt except for an injury playing touch football during some down-time.
Once he got back home to Connecticut, he began to realize more deeply that his mental health had been compromised by his time in the service. He suffered from PTSD and depression. He decided not to be silent anymore. Talking with a counselor, he realized that his PTSD had its roots in those three uncertain weeks in Alaska. "It was heaven and hell at once. We were all in limbo. We felt unleashed," he said.
Hawley began openly admitting he had a mental-health disabilty. His candor helped him deal with it and find help. Meeting his future wife — Helen Fox, a psychology professor at Yale — helped too. But he wanted to do more. At the Hartford Veterans Center, he met two other vets who felt the same.
In 2008, Hawley, Aaron Jones and Brian Barkman Jr. founded Veterans Art Foundation, a collective of Connecticut veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam who use art — painting, photography, poetry, writing — to help deal with their post-military psychological difficulties.
"Art therapy isn't something you can do alone, but art combined with other things, talk therapy, meditation, medication, whatever, it is a powerful tool," Hawley said. He added that the art foundation "gives people a creative outlet, a place to show their work, have it not be judged, just looked at by other veterans."
Al Kim, a Middletown police officer who spent 22 years in the Army, Army Reserve and National Guard, and who was injured by a bomb in Baghdad in 2003, agreed that art therapy and the Veterans Art Foundation have improved the quality of his life.
"Photography helps me settle down and focus," Kim said. "I can focus, concentrate, be in the moment. ... It gives me a chance to ignore anything and everything around me."
Kim is one of several VAF members exhibiting work at Klekolo World Coffee, 181 Court St. in Middletown, until the end of the month.
Members of the group also give presentations about PTSD to educate police departments and other community leaders on how to help war veterans.
Hawley, of New Haven, is studying social work at Southern Connecticut State University. He wants to devote himself to helping veterans with mental-health issues. He feels openness about the issue is key. Barkman, a Brookfield resident who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, agreed.
"It's really important that people talk about it. There is a stigma and I think that may be why there so many suicides among veterans," Barkman said. "People need to realize that it's OK, it's natural. If other people are doing it, hopefully they can do it, too."
Those interested in Veterans Art Foundation can find it on Facebook.