HOOVER, AL (WBRC) - Every week a group of veterans sit together in a room in Hoover. Sometimes everyone is chattering. Sometimes it is silent. But every time, they are painting.
Pictures of dogs, cats, guns, and haunting images of men in combat. Flowers starting bloom with the words "transition" flowing above them. A huey helicopter in a glowing hot sunset.
It's part of a new alternative therapy offered by the Birmingham Vet Center. The men and women in the program, say it's working.
"It's wonderful therapy, gets your mind free" says Daniel William. He is an Army Veteran, injured during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003-2004. "I come here and take my mind off what I have done," said William. "I've done all kinds of therapy. It's the most peaceful"
The program started earlier this year, thanks to the Hoover Arts Alliance. It began has a one time guided painting class, but it was such a success, they extended the program and it has morphed into open studio sessions. An instructor overseas the class, but often the veterans are teaching each other.
On this day, Ken Howard leans over to help his comrade with a painting of his dog. Howard served in Vietman, and often paints images of combat.
"I find it therapeutic to do military type art as a tribute to those who have served" says Howard as he put the finishing touches on a painting of a helicopter. "It was so common to see and hear these huey choppers. When you hear them coming it's the best sound because they are coming to help. Either to take out someone who is wounded or to help with the battle. The gunships saved us so many times."
Howard says the class is a helpful and safe way to address emotions. "A lot of veterans come back with bad emotion and this is a way for them to get it out in a non threatening way. "When you can talk about it some of the bad experiences turn into good."
For him, returning home was almost as difficult as the year tour he spent in Vietnam. He's grateful for the support he now receives from the community. "Times have changed so much. Someone will see me wearing my Vietnam hat now and stop and thank me for my service."
Therapist Michelle Davidson overseas the program. She knows what it's like to serve. She her husband both were both in Army. She works with veterans and their families to cope and process emotional scars, some that have been buried for years.
"They come home and they want to move on. They have hopes and dreams and families. They keep trucking on and unfortunately there are too many times that catches up to them." Says Davidson.
She believes that everyone heals in different ways. Maybe it's talking, maybe it's playing, or maybe it's through creating art – painting and music. She has also started a Guitars for Vets program. "A way to express without opening talking about it is helpful" says Davidson.
She hopes to reach the younger veterans sooner, some of whom have spent their entire military careers serving during wartime.
"It's obvious with a physical wound, it needs to be cleaned and healed. But it's the same with an emotional one. It needs to be cleaned out or it will be like a balloon and fill up until it bursts"
The class is open to anyone who has seen some sort of combat or hostile environment and victims of military sexual trauma. Davidson says painting offers an outlet, and sense of comradery.
"Trauma doesn't always trigger PTSD. It can also exhibit as depression, anxiety. It's like a cancer. The earlier you catch it the more responsive you will be" says Davidson.
The painting therapy classes are offered every Thursday morning from 9:30am until noon. Participants do need to register ahead of time. Right now, you can see some of their work on display at Hoover City Hall.