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Veteran Peers Help Others to Aim Toward their Goal
Tuesday, November 16, 2021Veteran Peer Facilitators Rodolfo Barrios and Frankie Perez help Veterans by showing that healing can come through the lens of a camera or at the tip of a paintbrush. Rodolfo is a Whole Health peer facilitator at the VA Caribbean Healthcare System and teaches a Whole Health photography course that helps other Veterans work through PTSD, anxiety and depression. To date, more than 50 Veterans have completed his course.
“When Veterans first start the course, they are guarded and not open at all. Throughout the course, I share my experiences with them so they know that I have been in their shoes - we become friends and they drop their guard,” said Rodolfo. “We begin relating with one another and then they feel more empowered to go out and spend time with their cameras. Soon they forget about what troubles them.”
Rodolfo notes that anyone who has served in the military has been trained to aim and shoot, and by transferring this skill to using a camera, this skill can be used in a creative and healing fashion. “Instead of looking for a target… Veterans are able to start looking for beauty. They find a new target that’s positive and can help them heal,” said Rodolfo. “Even if Veterans are not interested in photography, art in general, is a great outlet. I love painting.”
Rodolpho knows how it feels to experience the challenges of integrating into a new life. After retiring from the Army in 2010, he experienced many challenges as he began life as a civilian. He wasn’t comfortable in large crowds. He was very anxious, fidgety, and ultimately avoided doing many of the things he enjoyed in life. The only thing that seemed to calm his anxiety was his camera. “Being empty handed is nerve wracking. I was so used to walking around with a gun in my hand during active duty, that I felt lost without it,” said Rodolfo. “It’s one of those things you just don’t anticipate needing to get used to when you retire. Photography has become a form of meditation for me. When I have my camera, I feel more in control. I find myself processing my breathing and, in turn, I am able to capture beautiful images that live on forever,” said Rodolfo.
One of the Veterans Rodolfo has met through his passion for art is Frankie Perez. Frankie signed up with the U.S. Army as an Infantry in 2001 as a member of the Puerto Rico National Guard and was assigned to the 92nd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade. During his deployment to Iraq, Frankie was struck by an IED, and spent the following 15 years suffering with PTSD and a Traumatic Brain Injury among other conditions. In 2008, Frankie hit rock bottom and attempted to take his own life and was in critical condition for 30 hours at the San Juan VA Hospital. Realizing that he needed to turn his life around, Frankie began volunteering for Veteran organizations and found therapy through music and art.
He then started his own non-profit organization in Puerto Rico and since 2017 the organization has been offering therapy through art to other Veterans in the community and working across Puerto Rico and the United States. “At my foundation, we educate people and provide a space where Veterans can express themselves. We do not tell them what to do or what colors or techniques to use, but we allow their art to fill what is empty within them,” said Frankie.
Frankie’s foundation focuses on five key areas of mental health: post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, depression, anxiety disorder, and anger management. Frankie says all these things also directly tie into the work he does with Veterans as a Whole Health Coach.
“Upon retiring I struggled to find anything that really brought me peace, and in 2020 that outlet became even more important to me,” said Frankie.
In 2018, Frankie was selected to participate in Walk of America with England’s Prince Harry to raise awareness for mental health. It was during this walk that he fell ill due to blood clots. In November 2020, Frankie was diagnosed with cancer. “Despite my diagnosis, I continue to devote my life to helping other Veterans heal, and in helping them heal – I am healing too.
Rodolfo and Frankie both agree that creative arts saved their lives and they love being able to share their creative gifts with other Veterans who need it.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 or text 838255.