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Jose Gutierrez by Ana Castillo: Gutierrez was the first soldier killed in Iraq. The figure of the woman on his shoulder is a Mayan spirit named Istab who is believed to be a guiding light in the underworld to those who have died as warriors.

The war inside

Military and art cultures unite for the emotional well-being of American soldiers

By Claudia Pardo 09/01/2011

The Soldiers Project, a grassroots organization founded by psychiatrist Judith Broder, is a group of licensed mental health professionals who voluntarily offer psychological treatment to active-duty military service members, National Guard Reserves and veterans, who have served or who expect to serve in the conflicts in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Treatment is extended to members of their families and it’s conducted confidentially. (There is no reporting to any governmental agency.)

In 2004, after attending a play at an underground theater in Hollywood, Judith Broder — who was looking forward to retiring soon — had a life-altering experience. The play, produced and staged by Sean Huze, a former member of the U.S. Marine Corps 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, inspired Broder’s sense of public service, made her reconsider her plans for retirement from her years in mental health, and catalyzed The Soldiers Project. The Sand Storm: Stories From the Front,, similar to all of Huze’s writings to date, deals with the subject of the Iraq War, where he completed one tour of duty in 2003.

After a successful three-day conference in 2008, The Soldiers Project began to attract more attention. Through word of mouth, the project reached Ventura County two years ago via the involvement of Jetta Zellner, a marriage and family therapist and director of business development at Aurora Vista Del Mar Hospital, (Behavioral Health Care) in Ventura.

Zellner’s brother-in-law, who is currently stationed in Egypt, informed her of the different services provided for the young marines who guard the Embassy. “I have been interested in the military life for a while,” says Zellner. “There are thousands of Americans who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan who aren’t getting the services they need.”

As the president of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, Zellner sought a way to arrange a local benefit and fundraiser for The Soldiers Project.” With the support of Aurora Vista Del Mar, she shared her intention with friend Monica Furmanski, photography instructor and guest curator at Oxnard Community College.

Together they organized the The Soldiers Project Art Exhibit and Benefit, a first-of-its-kind collaboration, merging art and military cultures. To be held at the McNish Art Gallery on the campus of Oxnard College, the exhibit features a selection of art work created by United States active-duty military and veterans. Work by family members and loved ones dealing with the military life is also on display. An open call to artists in the community has resulted in several donations of art pieces, the participation of faculty and students and the involvement of community members.

“Many of our students are active members of the military,” says Furmanski. “They aren’t a compartmentalized culture, but are integrated in our student community.”

As the word about the show spread, calls began to come in about amazing stories of military men and women that were serendipitously captured on a canvas or print. One of those phone calls came from a woman in Los Angeles.

Many years ago, she had painted a portrait of Jose Gutierrez, a young man of Guatemalan descent, who, after becoming orphaned at age 14, walked all the way to the United States in search of a better life. He became part of the foster system before graduating from high school and promptly enlisting in the military. Gutierrez was the first soldier to be killed in Iraq. His painted portrait will be part of the exhibit.

Like Gutierrez’s portraitist, nurses, teachers, students and others are seizing this opportunity to publicly exhibit their art work, perhaps for the first time. The director of nursing at Aurora Vista Del Mar is another exhibiting artist. Her sister served in the Gulf War. Zellner’s brother-in-law, Ernie, is also a participating artist. He will send in photographs that he took while stationed abroad.

Zellner and Furmanski wish to extend The Soldiers Project’s mission — to bring together mental health professionals to provide free and confidential counseling to the military — into the college community. Adopt a College is a program that will offer psychological aid to students who have served or are currently serving in the military. Oxnard College’s proximity to the Port Hueneme naval base is conducive to the integration of this new program locally.

“It’s important to make services more accessible,” says Zellner, “ but it’s also important to educate communities regarding the psychological effects of war, and help break the stigma associated with getting help.”   

The Soldiers Project Art Exhibit and Benefit opens to the public on Thursday, Sept. 1. The reception is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 8, 4 p.m., followed by a lecture on military culture by guest speaker Kim Evans, a therapist who is on staff at the California National Guard Joint Behavioral Health Office. Founder Judith Broder will also be in attendance. On Sept. 17, at 2 p.m., there will be a silent auction of art from local artists. All proceeds will benefit The Soldiers

Project. For more information about The Soldiers Project, please visit www.thesoldiersproject.org or www.oxnardcollegeart.wordpress.com.

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