In honor of United States Independence Day, we wanted to bring to you a special Veterans edition of our regular monthly artist interview, Real Artist Real Stories. It’s been well documented that art can provide therapy for veterans adjusting back to civilian life. In this special edition, Omar spoke very candidly about his struggles and how photography has provided the creative outlet that has helped him continually provide the service that was so instinctually learned in the military.
Omar Columbus with Raindrops
Can you share a little bit about the difficulties you have had around expressing your experiences as a soldier upon your return home? Were your memories deeply buried? What was happening to you emotionally? Was there a fear of people’s responses or their inability to understand?
Being the oldest of three children of struggling single mother who could not afford to pay for college tuition, the choice became clear. I’m just glad that I did my research and at 18 years old, I chose to enlist in the United States Air Force. The lessons of “real life” that I learned over the next 12 years impacted me deeply. Upon returning home, I realized that I was thrown back into a world that I felt did not understand me. It was very tough expressing the experiences I had when in the Air Force. I was proud of the many things that I had seen and been through, yet in the aftermath, I didn’t know exactly what I was feeling mentally, emotionally, and how to translate those feelings. Due to the sensitive nature of some operations during my career it made it challenging to talk to my family and friends about certain things that I was going through. Even my nightmares are classified “Top Secret.”
I had completed many tours of duty all around the world. Being deployed in 2003 to support combat operations in Iraqi Freedom had a profound impact on my life. I saw the true savages mankind was willing to become in order to win, the art of war in its evil beauty. I never want to feel that way ever again. I was fortunate enough to make it home to see my family again, I will always be grateful for that. Not all of my friends that served alongside me were so lucky. I served my country, fought honorably and it was a time in my life that I was doing things that I felt mattered. Some things I’ll always be proud to remember. It was also a period in my life when I had to do things that haunt me still today in my thoughts and dreams.
It took a few years after returning home from the war before it really hit me that something internal had changed. It was 2007 and I was on a mission to find my way as an American Veteran. I went from working in the classified world of military intelligence, to now an unemployed and homeless Veteran living in New York City. The transition was rough. The lack of resources and information for veterans was an instant battle that I had to fight. I was not adequately prepared for entering the civilian job market. I had what I thought was an amazing 2-page resume covering my years of leadership, management, and combat experience. Which my guidance counselor reduced and rigorously sanitized of all words deemed “threatening” to the current human resource departments. I was told that the corporate world was afraid of words like “War”, “Combat,” “Medal of …” “Deployed” etc… With all of my years of military experience being stripped away from my resume, all that was left with was a feeling of failure. After giving so much, I had nothing. I seemed unaccomplished and isolated as I prepared to return to a job market that I felt was afraid to hire me.
The pressure veterans face as they return home is disappointing. It’s unfortunate that Veteran’s are now “America’s collateral damage”. I was scared, anxious and didn’t know what to do. I had poor guidance, no outlet, and I was beginning to lose all patience with everything and everyone, and even myself. I wanted it to be over, I felt left for dead, abandoned and lied to by my country.
The recurring thoughts, relapsing nightmares, and revolving emotions became constant torture. I felt alone in my own country and I felt like no one understood me. Deep down on the inside, I felt guilty because of the operations that I had been a part of while on active duty. I felt guilty for living, when those that we were fighting had to die, for making it back alive when some friends came home in body bags and for all of the lives affected by my decisions. I was ashamed and kept everything bottled up inside of me until I was about to explode. I was taught as a child, and while on active duty that “real men don’t cry.” I found out the hard way that every man cries. War causes tears, I cried, and my tears fell in silence.
Can you tell us about your introduction to art therapy as a form of healing? Was there a particular turning point in your art therapy sessions that helped you turn a corner in your healing process? Or, has it been a slow, subtle, steady process so far?
I can honestly say that I did not find art, art found me. When I was on my job search I became connected with a Veteran organization here in NYC called “Warrior Writers”. That started my introduction into writing poems and short stories about my combat experiences. I was able to write my own works, read them for other Veteran’s to hear, and also listen to their writings. It was the beginning of healing for me.
I started college and found that the power of photography is a truly amazing and healing gift. I love to take photographs of the world around me, most specifically street and portrait photography. Days when I feel so disconnected from the world around me, my camera breaks down those temporary barriers of insecurity and shame, and allows me to see just how wonderful life is again. The freedom to be creative and expressive is a process. My biggest obstacles with creativity are pushing through the guilt of my past and allowing myself to embrace my now through every photograph that I capture, and by every poem that I write and recite. It has been a slow and steady process so far but I’m encouraged again. My hopes are to influence other veterans that struggle with posttraumatic stress to seek creative avenues to provide relief from the torment that can consume us.
Sometimes soldiers describe their memories of war and combat in terms of their senses – the sights, sounds, sensations, and smells that make up their memories. Has working with non-verbal art practices helped you to communicate or live with your experience in ways traditional therapies have not?
One day not very long ago, my life seemed to be overwhelming. I was walking aimlessly down NYC’s uptown streets; my mind had been racing for days with no end in sight. The nightmares of my wars of yesterday were colliding with my present fears of pending wars. I was analyzing the information around me coming to my own assessment that as an American, I currently feel danger. Though at that very moment, I was safe, inside my mind and I was doing all that I could to survive an internal war that I had still been raging for years now. I wanted to shut down and isolate myself from the world. Through the coping skills obtained in art therapy sessions, I chose to pull out my camera and capture something beautiful in that very moment. I did not give up, even though it felt impossible. I constantly remind myself that there is beauty everywhere even when my mind tells me that it’s not. I’ve been able to capture in photography my emotion, my pain, and my joy. I see the beauty in my surroundings and the people who fill up my world and it has helped me immensely.
PHOTOGRAPHY & CREATIVITY:
Have you used photography as a form of Art Therapy? Is there a specific photograph or photography experience that has inspired you, or helped you and your family or a friend share a new level of understanding, compassion, empathy, or joy together? Do you have any thoughts on the importance of creativity in your life since you became involved in art therapy?
I use photography daily as a form of art therapy. When nights are long and nightmares wake me from my sleep, I can always edit photographs. When I feel alone and that the world does not make any sense, I can find peace in creating images. When I feel that I am speaking my own language and that no one understands me, I know that I can convey something through art that everyone would understand. Veterans are a diverse group of people who have unselfishly volunteered their lives for a purpose. That sense of purpose is sometimes lost once combat is over. The chance to create and the platform to present our Veteran art is a crucial need right now and in the future. Lives can be saved and influenced through the creative arts. Veterans have paved the way for others and I look forward to continually give back more through art and service.