PTSD Poem, Art Exhibit Misses the Mark, Veterans Say

Poet and USF adjunct professor Melanie Graham hangs - Many Happy Returns - her poetry art exhibit at USF's Centre Gallery.
Poet and USF adjunct professor Melanie Graham hangs - Many Happy Returns - her poetry art exhibit at USF's Centre Gallery.
TAMPA (2011-10-27) -

Art for a cause is nothing new especially on college campuses and at the University of South Florida an adjunct professor is using her poetry, she said, to shine the spotlight on America’s responsibility to help combat veterans with post traumatic stress. But some veterans on campus believe her poem and accompanying art exhibit missed the mark and instead portrays them in a bad light.

The poem is titled: Many Happy Returns by Melanie Graham who teaches composition and professional writing at USF. Graham called it a found poem because it combines written material from other sources into a poem. In this case, she merged language from a military brochure on reunification that one of her students had brought in for a project with news reports.

The poem begins:

A note to the returning service member and family
If the return home was easy, there would be no need for this guide
But we know that is not always the case.
June 2002, the first veterans of the war in Afghanistan return to Fort Bragg, N.C.

However, knowing what to expect and preparing for it
can make the process easier.
June 11, Sgt. First Class Rigoberto Nieves fatally shoots his wife Teresa and then himself in their bedroom.

She crafted the poem into an art installation making an individual cork-board for each stanza. At each board, you read the military brochure set-up and then the media account typewritten on onion skin paper.

“I choose onion skin because of rareness of the paper and it’s extremely fragile, you can almost see through it and like truth it’s very fragile,” Graham said.

Also symbolic are the many of the images with the displays: photos of a beekeeper, a steak and potato dinner, a family with their faces scratched out. Graham, whose father was a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, said she wrote the poem to focus on the observation that many military service members are coming home and not getting help with their symptoms of post traumatic stress.

“If you’re in America, we are at war. We don’t feel it,” Graham said. “We need to appreciate what’s going on and beside the fact of putting a yellow ribbon magnet on your car, beside the fact of saying to someone thank you for your service look at what the realities are that these people face.”

But some student veterans at USF who saw the exhibit drew a different.

“One of the veterans said to me ‘I’m not going to come out and say I’ve got post traumatic stress if this is what they’re going to look at me and say oh you’re going to do this,’” said Larry Braue, director of the Office of Veteran Services at USF. “It (Graham’s art exhibit) paints an image that is not accurate of post traumatic stress.”

Braue said there are many different levels of post traumatic stress that are not reflected in the exhibit. He learned about Graham’s PTSD poem and display when one of his student veterans gave him a controversial postcard promoting the exhibit.

“Just the words that were on there,” Braue said. “And the graphic image of a veteran or somebody who appeared to be a veteran blowing his head off with a pistol.”

Braue, a veteran himself, went to the exhibit at USF’s Centre Gallery worried there would be similar violent images. There are not. But he was troubled by Graham’s poem as were many of the student veterans who come through his office for services.

“Some of them were offended. Some of them were hurt,” Braue said. “They felt hurt that they were being portrayed in a light that was very negative. You know when you look at the stories of a sergeant who comes home and kills his family, that’s certainly not how many of our veterans want to be portrayed and while things like that have happened, that is not the norm.”

Graham said she sought feedback from veterans in her family as she worked on the poem and the postcard is an illustration of her brother who was a Marine embassy guard. She added that she did not mean to offend or traumatize veterans, but she defended her use of only violent homecoming scenarios.

“It’s a necessary evil, so to speak, to raise these issues and I certainly didn’t mean for it to damage anyone,” Graham said. “I’m hoping to wake people off of their Facebook so they’ll realize this is reality for a lot of people and people who sacrifice on behalf of the country.”

While Braue did not like parts of the exhibit, he said it did prompt much needed discussion about post traumatic stress.

“While maybe it’s not the way we would have liked it to happen, but it has raised awareness and it helps our veterans to say what post traumatic stress really is – it gets them to speak out and tell the real story of what post traumatic stress is,” Braue said. “And really raises awareness for our counselors to know that there are misconceptions about post traumatic stress.”

The exhibit, Many Happy Returns, is open through Friday at the USF Marshall Center, Centre Gallery, Tampa Campus.

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