After 33 years in the Army, Lt. Col. Annette Morris couldn’t help but feel lost when she retired.
She’d enlisted at 18 and was a combat medic for 5½ years before the Army sent her back to school to become a nurse.
She was told life would be rough when she got out. And it was.
The military gave her a reason to get up, Morris said. Her exit left her without a sense of purpose.
“You feel like you’re somebody, and then when you get out, you sort of feel kind of like a nobody now,” said Morris, who lives in New Kent County and previously lived in Chesterfield County.
Then a therapist at the VA hospital recommended she try a program called Art for the Journey.
She’d sketched as an elementary schooler. But by the end of elementary school, Morris had put down her pencil and picked up the clarinet and oboe. She also participated in track and softball.
When she retired five years ago, Morris remembered feeling alone. As she made her transition to civilian life through the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center, she got involved in the groups offered there.
Here, she gets to be around others who are like her — that’s the best part, she said.
“I felt so much like, somebody understands me, they get me,” Morris said. “And if they don’t get me there, they’re a lot like me in some ways, maybe not all the ways, but we all have something in common. And I felt like I’m not being judged at all. I can just be myself. I can say as much as I choose, or I can say as little as I choose, and that’s OK.”
Now, she said participating in the nonprofit program for veterans relaxes her and allows her to get back into what she used to love, especially in retirement.
“I can invest in it,” Morris, who has PTSD and history with a traumatic brain injury, said. “I don’t feel like I’m rushed. If I don’t finish it today, I can pick it up tomorrow morning and start on it. So I think it’s just sitting down and having the time to really, really put into it and knowing that, you know, the end product is whatever I want it to be.”
Art for the Journey, led by President Mark Hierholzer, community engagement coordinator Melba Gibbs and executive director Cindy Paullin, aims to impact other veterans the same way.
The program got started in 2014 when Paullin and others took an art class with Hierholzer on impressionism. Their first program was with women at prisons. Three years ago, they started the veterans’ program.
A supporter of theirs was friends with a man named Clint Arrington, who did an equestrian program for veterans with post traumatic stress disorder. Upon Arrington’s death, the supporter was concerned about a need not being met with the community.
From there, Paullin said they got in contact with the VA. She said they were impressed — she said the VA told her they usually have to go to others to get them to do programs, not the other way around.
In the program, Hierholzer said they bring together a group of veterans and volunteers to combine art with personal engagement.
Paullin said the impact on the veterans can be felt in the room.
Bryant Mormon, who served 22½ years in the Marines, came into his first class nervous and not knowing what to expect.
When the veterans were paired up, Mormon, 55, found himself with an Army veteran who served with someone he knew.
Since then, he’s always been willing to come back.
Mormon said some people there have family who are veterans while others don’t. At the end of the day though, he said it doesn’t matter.
“A lot of veterans are hung up on well, you know, they don’t understand,” Mormon said. “They may not understand, but they care for you. They care for what you did for the country. And they have not sympathy, but they got empathy for you, and they’re here to help you work through it, and this is a means to help you work through it.”
Morris said in the classes, the veterans are always taken care of. She called the environment “warm.”
“It’s all about the veteran when I’m in one of those sessions,” Morris said. “It’s all about us.”
Hierholzer said the environment happens by itself. Paullin said even the volunteers step away positively impacted.
“We realized we had created some sort of magic here,” Paullin said. “The ticket is to create art.”
What helps depends on the person. Mormon said art helps him deal with what he’s gone through. In Iraq, he said, he was blown up and sustained brain damage that messes with his rationality and reason. Art therapy brings him peace of mind and helps his brain, he said.
Hierholzer, Gibbs and Paullin all came into this with some experience with the military, which has given them heart for those they serve.
Hierholzer did a brief stint in the Navy. His dad and brothers also all served.
“It’s something that I feel we owe our veterans, you know,” Hierholzer said. “We owe these friendships to them, who have sacrificed for us.”
Paullin’s father was in the Army and her father-in-law in the Air Force. Gibbs ran a nonprofit called Freedom House for 18 years that was the first to accept homeless veterans. Her uncle, a Vietnam War veteran, took his own life when he came back after his fourth tour.
“There are a lot of individuals that have served us that I have met that don’t talk about the tragedies,” Gibbs said. “They keep those tragedies and those losses so deep inside of them, that when you see them do come out, and they you know, maybe they get a job or they get a house or they come to these programs that we have, and they open up and they start to enjoy and they start talking, it is a miracle to me that we’ve been able to deliver these opportunities for these veterans.”
From her time in classes, Morris has gathered a collection of art she’s created. Her favorite piece is a treasure box with articles on Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that led to school desegregation, inside. She grew up in Farmville, where part of the case had its footing.
“I’m starting to put my initials on them like I’m real, like I’m Picasso or somebody,” she said, laughing.
It’s progress: Somebody, not nobody.