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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Despite Trauma, Talents Shine At VA Hospital

Once or twice a year, veterans share the spotlight at the VA Hospital in White River Junction, competing for the chance to move on to national competition in the visual and performing arts. As their work shows, even the most traumatic events can become fodder for compelling art.

The VA’s talent roster is long and deep. First up at this winter’s showcase was a Vietnam veteran from Ludlow named Gary Pridham. He didn’t see combat, but a lot of his relatives and friends did and reported back to him in letters. Here’s a song he wrote about a soldier nicknamed Badger, who lost his life on a scouting mission.

“One day while on a maneuver with Badger in the lead, he scouted for the enemy to help his company,” he sang.

A shot sends Badger to the ground, but the rest of his company returns home safely. That mix of patriotism and stark realism infuses a lot of the creative work on display, including visual art.

At one end of the small gallery room, Mike Audette rolls his wheelchair toward a table totally covered with miniature solders in a battlefield diorama.  He made all of them, pouring liquid metal into molds and meticulously hand painting them. That’s not easy for this disabled Navy veteran who left the service in 1998.

“I used to fly search and rescue choppers, have traumatic brain injury, [and] had brain surgery to save my life, basically,” Audette says.

Across from his table, Beverly Farnham stands beside her art work—a wooden panel divided into four sections, each depicting a different season. She worked as an army  recruiter at Kent State shortly after four students were infamously gunned down there during an anti-Vietnam war protest. She says that campus trauma played only a small role in her PTSD.

“I was the first recruiter there after the incident. But no—I was...raped,” she says.

She finds creativity of all kinds has helped her move forward after that sexual assault.  Many artists at this showcase agree that making art and music can be therapeutic. Brooke Robinson, the VA Hospital’s Recreation Therapist, organizes the talent show.

“I think the creative arts are extremely healing for our veterans, a lot of times people, in addition to talking, need to get things out, they just tell me they need to physically get it on paper, or haves someone hear it or experience it,” Robinson says.

Even if they are performing for people near the end of their lives.

At the show, the VA’s volunteer hospice choir performs the songs some veterans sing at bedsides. They hope to offer comfort and support for dying veterans and their families with songs like “Angel Band,” recorded by the Stanley Brothers.

“My latest sun is sinking fast / My race is nearly run / My longest trials now are past / My triumph has begun ,” the ensemble sings in four-part a cappella harmony.