AUGUSTA — It may seem like a small gesture, but it’s a meaningful one for Maine veterans who are also artists.

On Wednesday, the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee voted unanimously in support of a bill that would establish Nov. 1 as Veterans in the Arts and Humanities Day. 

The committee moved the bill from a public hearing to a vote in a work session in less than 30 minutes, suggesting there is little opposition to the bipartisan measure.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Duchesne, D-Hudson, said if the measure is approved by the full Legislature later this year, Maine will be the first state in the country to make an official designation for veteran artists and craftsmen.

Duchesne told the committee that practicing various forms of the arts is often a key therapy for war veterans who return home and are transitioning to civilian life. Duchesne and others said the rates of suicide, joblessness and homelessness are higher among veterans than other populations.

“The United States is experiencing an epidemic of suicides among servicemen and women; it’s two to three times the rate of the general population,” Duchesne said. “And most of these deaths occur after deployment when they actually come back home.”

Duchesne said while the suicide issue was the worst part of the situation for veterans, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“Bubbling under the surface is a whole range of psychological and social challenges that await our returning veterans,” Duchesne said. “As a nation, we’ve been rather slow to recognize how difficult reintegration is after the tremendous highs and lows of service and the regimentation of deployment and all that goes with it. Life back home is a whole lot different.”

He said that in the past, the most common treatment for veterans who wrestle with post-traumatic stress disorder was “counseling and pills.” But more often, the therapeutic value of practicing art is being recognized as a way to help veterans cope, Duchesne said. 

Those supporting the bill Wednesday agreed that the gesture by the Legislature, if signed by Gov. Paul LePage, would be meaningful to many of Maine’s estimated 140,000 veterans.

Maine novelist and Army veteran Jeff Davis said those who have experienced war suffer trauma and develop natural human defense mechanisms that are sometimes difficult to let go of after their service is over.

“Most return to civilian life and drop those defenses; some cannot,” Davis said. “That is PTSD in a nutshell.”

He said veterans who turn to art, whether it’s writing, painting or some other medium, find a measure of relief and purpose that’s absent in other outlets. More important, when their artwork is recognized and appreciated, it reminds veterans that their lives are purposeful again.

“We come here today to ask you to help us help ourselves,” Davis said. “Passage of this bill will go a long way in bringing to light what can happen when a warrior returns home and hammers his sword into a piece of art, exchanges it for a paintbrush or lays it down to pick up a pen and a paper to put his or her feelings to paper. PTSD will never go away, but we can hold it at bay with the arts and the humanities.”

Ralph Grover, a veteran and an advanced-practice psychiatric nurse who worked with veterans at the Bangor Vet Center for 14 years, said art was truly a catalyst for some veterans. Grover said he worked with veterans from World War II through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’ve found that those veterans who could muster and transfer some of their energy and feelings into a positive direction, which usually was some form of art, were the ones who responded best to getting better,” Grover said.

Committee members seemed to be in broad agreement and changed only one word in the bill, to LePage “may” declare the day to be recognized statewide instead of requiring it be recognized with the use of the word “shall.”

Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield, thanked Davis and the other veterans who testified Wednesday and also the bill’s sponsors. Pickett said he supported the measure and noted there were many positive things that were happening to help veterans in Maine.

“And for everything there is, there is something else out there we can find where we can probably do better,” Pickett said.

The bill will move to a vote in the Maine House of Representatives.

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