Women veterans share their experiences through art

People usually wear masks to obscure or change their identities, but an unique art therapy program using decorated papier-mâché masks is giving female veterans an opportunity to speak their truths.

“The goal is to let people know that they are not alone,” said Zaida Nogue, veterans service adviser at Camden County College. “We have 22 veterans a day that commit suicide, and if we can lower that number it would be great, and by any means. The goal is to let them know that we do care, we don’t just say it, we mean it, we live it, we breathe it. We are here to help them. We want them to succeed and we want them to do well.”

The art display is personal to Nogue. Nogue did not serve in the military, but all three of her kids did. Last year she saw the decorated masks at the “I am Not Invisible” exhibit in Philadelphia, so she requested that the program be brought to the Veterans Service Center at Camden County College to inspire other female veterans.

“The masks are an awesome expression of the women’s different personalities. It shows their individuality. And it also shows that they have thoughts, and passions, and dreams and they’re able to express it through the masks,” said Danielle Spencer, U.S. Army veteran.

Next to each mask, veterans are able to reveal their names and stories on a small piece of paper.

“I think we ended up completing about maybe 15 masks altogether. Not every woman put their masks on display. It’s more about the women getting the experience to tell their story. Us just being able to show it to the world is a bonus,” said Women Veterans Center of Philadelphia Program Coordinator Marie Di Lauro.

Staff who participated in the sessions say the art therapy allowed veterans to explore parts of themselves and experience emotions that they may have been suppressing.

“To be able to create what’s going on inside the mind without having to speak about it is very powerful. These women got the chance to tell their stories, people asking about their stories. I would get emotional as well because I learned so much,” said Veterans Multi-Service Center art therapy intern Brittany Osteen.

Nogue says she hopes to have more opportunities for veterans to express their struggles to cope with post-traumatic stress and other challenges they may face when transitioning back to civilian life. She also says it’s important for everyone to remember to thank a female veteran for their service when you see one.

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