Art Therapy for Veterans

Nearly 50 years after leaving Vietnam, Brian Yee is still haunted by war. 

The 69-year-old Army veteran has trouble sleeping at night. Memories of the Vietnam War continue to race in his mind. “I’d see guys being killed all the time,” said Yee, a helicopter pilot. “We’d watch enemy fire from the air. At the end of the day, we’d have to pick up dead bodies.”

Yee flew 365 missions during his 10-month tour of duty. “I was lucky to get out of there alive,” he said. “I had passed the stage of scared or complaining. I developed a numb demeanor. It’s like watching your life on TV.”   

When Yee returned to Hawaii in 1969, he went into a deep, dark depression. He’d isolate himself from his family and friends. He couldn’t find a job and spent his days alone fishing along the Waianae coast. People told him he was wasting his life away.  

He knew something was wrong with him. But there was no mention at the time of what’s now been identified as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “World War II and Korean War vets never talked about their war experiences, so I just kept quiet,” said Yee. 

But keeping quiet was eating him up inside. 

“I now know my neighbors and uncles had PTSD,” he said. “They’d get drunk, blow steam, yell at the kids, and kick the dogs.”

Twenty years later, Yee finally got help for his depression. He began being treated by a therapist, who suggested that he write about his feelings about his Vietnam experience. Yee wrote essays and poems about the discrimination he experienced as a Chinese-American in a country where the enemy looked like him. He wrote about losing his friends, seeing helicopters get shot down, and climbing into graves to get away from mortar attack. 

“I found out that I was good at writing,” he said. “And it helped me process my experiences and make it easier to accept.”

Yee joined the creative writing group at the Veterans Affairs Pacific Islands Health Care System. Then he started reviving his childhood love for art and began doing ceramics. He became involved with the Hawaii Potters Guild and began entering his work in the annual National Veterans Creative Arts Competition. It gave him a renewed purpose and positive outlook in life.  

“Art helps me understand my depression a lot more so I can handle it better,” he said. 

Art has been known to be a form of physical and psychological therapy that can help heal the body and mind. The competition helps veterans explore their artistic side by entering their paintings, photographs, sculptures, writings, musical performances, and other art forms. The Hawaii winners are then entered in the national competition.

Yee fires up a kiln during his early years of doing ceramics.

 “When I’m creating, it’s like watching someone else throwing the clay on the wheel, or glaze or fire it in the kiln. I see my hands doing it but I don’t think it’s me,” he said. 

Some of Yee's ceramic pieces.

“Art takes me away from my depression,” he said. “It’s like Zen. My imagination and hands take over.” 

Yee’s entry in this year’s Veterans Creative Arts Competition contest is “Line in the Sand,” a ceramic vase that looks like a bamboo for ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement). The curve represents a samurai sword. 

Yee is proud to show his entry in this year's Veterans Creative Arts Competition.