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Veterans Health Administration

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Veterans Health Administration


Shirts that Tell a Story

two women

Dr. Carolyn Allard, Military Sexual Trauma Coordinator, and Jennifer Roberts, Women Veterans Program Manager, coordinated the Clothesline Project at the San Diego VA Healthcare System.

Scene by scene, drawn in fabric paint, Veteran Lisa Telly recreated the journey her life has taken since she was sexually assaulted while serving in the military.

“I drew a picture of myself in my uniform,” she described. “The next scene is showing me and my attacker and then after that, there’s a lot of darkness — purple, black. Then after that I drew a rainbow.” 

Telly said she still considers herself in the recovery process. However, the transformation depicted on her shirt, from black to “happier, vibrant colors,” indicates the positive effects of attending group and intensive individual therapy at the San Diego VA Healthcare System.

“I actually drew some of the therapists who helped me along the way and a path leading toward a happier future where I don’t have to live like that,” Telly described the final scenes on her shirt. “I made a fist to show the power. I’m getting my power back.”

two decorated shirts on display

Dozens of Veterans decorated shirts for the Clothesline Project display.

The Clothesline Project

The concept for the Clothesline Project is simple: give each participant the opportunity to tell their story, in their own way. The expression of those feelings would be therapeutic for the survivors and the exhibit, in turn, provides an educational experience for those who attend.

Participants were given the opportunity to attend shirt decorating events throughout March and April, where counselors and fellow survivors were on hand to offer support. They could also take a shirt home to decorate and then return it to the medical center to be included in the display.

San Diego VA Women Veteran Program Manager Jennifer Roberts explains that it is up to the Veteran how involved they become, “It’s an acknowledgment that they are kind of stepping forward [by decorating a shirt], but they can remain anonymous.

“I’m surprised at the enthusiasm from the women and the men, frankly. I thought it would be much more difficult for them to come forward and share their story.

“The messages on the shirts are just incredible.”

“You find that there’s a lot more people out there who have been through the same thing.”

— Lisa Telly, Veteran

Some Veterans have held on to the secret of these life-shattering experiences for years; compelled by military discipline and the traumatizing mental effects to stay silent. Nationally, one in five female Veterans and one in 100 male Veterans have told their VA health care provider they have experienced MST. The atmosphere of the Clothesline Project brought everything into the light, displaying dozens of decorated shirts in the medical center’s multipurpose room.

Next to the shirts, educational posters were hung up and handouts provided lists of resources and therapy options available through the VA. Counselors from the Military Sexual Trauma (MST) team stood by to help anyone who visited the exhibit.

MST Coordinator Dr. Carolyn Allard said that it is especially important to provide support for those who aren’t already in counseling.

“My top goal was to raise awareness, so that we can further de-stigmatize this experience for people,” she said. “So they can feel like they’re not alone; they have people they can turn to for help and have resources they can use for recovery.”

man looks at display of decorated shirts and a military uniform

Stan Johnson, Director of the San Diego VA Healthcare System, reads the messages on some of the shirts in the two-day exhibit organized to raise awareness about military sexual trauma.

Opening up

The event saw a positive response from the Veteran community, with each of the shirt decorating group bringing in a half dozen participants. Both men and women Veterans were eager for the opportunity to share their story.

Roberts said those willing to be recognized during the event were presented with a candle, “The idea is to represent growth and healing.”

Telly found that participating in the Clothesline Project was a process of growth and healing in itself.

“I was excited before, but then I found as the day drew closer — I started to think a lot about what had happened to me and I got a lot of anxiety over it. Especially in the last week, I found that I probably need to keep up with my therapy.”

Sitting down to decorate her shirt, Telly said that it was a release of emotions ranging from anger to strength to positivity and thinking of the future.

“For years and years I kept that all inside, because it was almost something you weren’t supposed to talk about,” she said. “You were made to feel almost like it was your fault.

“You find that there’s a lot more people out there who have been through the same thing.”

She met people that cared, people that she could trust at the San Diego VA. Now, Telly is hoping that Veterans who see her story on the Clothesline Project shirt realize they can find the same support.

“Don’t think that you can do this alone, there’s help out there. Each therapist or each therapy program is getting you to a place where you can live again,” she said. “I’m hoping one day to have it all completely out of my system. To know that it was something that I went through, but it doesn’t have to define my life.”

Related Links:
  Military Sexual Trauma
  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  The Clothesline Project