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Woman Warrior Embraces Creativity to Manage Post-Military Emotions

Yolanda loves to paint. She appreciates how difficult emotions become beautiful works of art.

After taking a tour of her Savannah, Georgia, home, one might be challenged to describe Yolanda Jones’ style. She has an eclectic mix of items on display, from crayon-scribbled scraps of paper, courtesy of her granddaughter, to brightly painted ceramic masks adorned with beads, feathers, and flowers, to various-sized canvases, some featuring bold abstract splotches of color, others gentle brushstrokes of muted landscapes. Two wood-carved bears stand guard atop her fireplace hearth.

Although she won an award for art in seventh grade, growing up, Yolanda was driven by the left side of her brain – a self-described nerd with a passion for computers.

After school, she embarked on a robust military career with the Air Force, the Army, and the Army National Guard. She deployed to the Middle East several times during her service.

A neck injury led to her medical retirement in 2005. Yolanda admits she struggled with transitioning to civilian life, especially as she tried to manage chronic pain from other service-related injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Eventually, she embraced the essential elements of her right brain to heal.

Connections that Spark Joy

Yolanda first became acquainted with Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) in late 2016. “I learned that Wounded Warrior Project was not just for amputees but was for all military personnel with any injuries, visible or invisible. So, I signed up, and the journey began."

She embraced the opportunity to connect with like-minded warriors and access programs that helped improve her physical and mental well-being. 

My go-to is painting. The brush on the canvas just soothes my soul.

Yolanda attended physical health and wellness events and financial wellness seminars. She also benefited from specialized mental health care through Warrior Care Network®, an accelerated outpatient program that helps veterans manage PTSD and other mental health conditions. Though art activities were part of several WWP™ experiences, it wasn’t until Yolanda joined a virtual art class during the COVID-19 pandemic that she rediscovered her creativity.

“I really enjoyed myself,” Yolanda said of that first class. “Then, I began to wonder if I could do this on my own because I really liked how it made me feel. It sparked joy.”

Channeling the Chaos

Embracing the arts as a part of healing is a common therapeutic practice in the veteran community.

Research shows that engaging in creative activity can change brain chemistry, such as reducing stress hormones and anxiety. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, art therapy is valuable for veterans living with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, or managing substance use. Art therapy helps improve cognitive functioning and fine motor skills while improving self-esteem and overall mental health.

Additionally, artistic endeavors allow emotions to surface and be expressed in new ways, whether through drawing or painting, writing and playing music, engaging in movement via dance or martial arts, or even cooking.

WWP incorporates creative components into several programs, including Alumni events, certain Project Odyssey adventures, and Warrior Care Network. 

Watch: Veterans Find Healing Through Creative Outlets

Soothing the Soul

I’ve learned that when I slow down and start creating, I get a rise in serotonin and dopamine because I have an outlet to release my emotions, to expel the negative, and to make room for happiness,” Yolanda said. "I’m not focused on what made me mad or upset.” Ironically, her angriest moments become the most whimsical and colorful works of art.

Yolanda art tree

One of Yolanda's colorful works of art.

“Art is a good outlet for me. It’s been really helpful for me to channel negative emotions like anger or depression because when I begin to create happiness, love comes through,” said Yolanda, adding that she also journals and writes poetry. “I try not to limit myself to one thing, but my go-to is painting. The brush on the canvas just soothes my soul.”

Yolanda acknowledges that she still has tough days, but those are the times she uses art to propel her forward.

“For me, art is continued therapy. It motivates me to continue pushing ahead," said Yolanda.

"We all have days where we fall. We have to figure out why and then get back up and continue our journey,” she said.

View: An Interactive Display of Yolanda's Artwork

Displays of Hope 

Though she's often asked about selling her work, Yolanda refrains from taking commissions. “I don’t want it not to be fun for me because it’s for my mental health rather than profit.”

However, she does seek opportunities to share her art and educate others about PTSD and using creativity as a healing tool. One of her pieces is currently on display at the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia.

“I love motivational speaking. It's at the top of my list to talk to people and share parts of my story,” said Yolanda, noting that she often uses a piece that she made while participating in Warrior Care Network at Rush University Medical Center’s Road Home Program.  

“I took pictures of it and use it as a map to help people understand what post-traumatic stress is,” she said, of the mask she decorated as part of the art therapy program.

Yolanda said the mask's dichotomy of colors and textures is important to show the disparity of feelings veterans experience daily as they navigate the wounds of war.

Yolanda's mask that she shares.

Yolanda decorated this mask while participating in Warrior Care Network. She uses it to educate others about PTSD and other challenges veterans often silently face.

“When I tell the story of what the mask depicts, it gives people a visual understanding of how post-traumatic stress happens and what it’s like to live with it, sharing how we process pain and anger, fear, and anxiety.” 

The front is split into two sides. Each side is a different color. 

“Pink is for the days I feel cute and cuddly. I’m nice and sweet as pie. I don’t blow up – because I internalize everything,” said Yolanda, noting that the bling and feathers represent days she dresses up, puts on makeup, and feels amazing.

“The green is my Hulk smash side. It’s a side a lot of people got (before) when I am gruff and rough, angry.” 

The multicolored lines cutting through the center of the mask represent times Yolanda felt cut off.

“I often felt like my voice was stifled. People wouldn’t let me speak and tell my point of view,” she said.

Flipping the mask over, Yolanda explains the design represents the unseen commotion that many military veterans experience daily because of traumatic brain injuries or PTSD. “The lightning bolts, the scrambled letters, are the brain fog when you can’t remember what you were about to say two seconds ago.”

The butterfly, she added, symbolizes her anxiety. “My anxiety is always there, whether I realize it or not.”

Daily Reminders

Yolanda's I Am artwork.

Yolanda proudly displays her "I Am" artwork, so she sees it daily.

“A lot of people don’t realize that post-traumatic stress is up there with alcoholism and drug abuse – you have to work on it every day,” said Yolanda, noting that the decorations in her home serve as a daily reminder of her journey.

She proudly offers visitors a guided tour of her favorite works, including one painting that stands tall atop a shelf in her crafting room: a woman dressed in positive affirmations. 

“It took me a long time to embrace ‘I am’ statements, so she is a daily reminder that I am!” Yolanda explained. “As soon as I turn the corner to go in, there she is, commanding my attention every time. And I tell other people to hang up their art and display it proudly. You might make someone’s day, even if it's your own.”

Related Mental Health articles:

WWP has various programs and services to help warriors and their loved ones on their journey to better mental health and wellness. 

Contact: Cynthia Weiss – Public Relations, cweiss@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904.738.2589

About Wounded Warrior Project

Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

 

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