Creating a Cozier Military: The Love Armor Project

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(Love Armor Project)

Steve Loomis didn't fully understand that he was gay when he joined the Army and fought in Vietnam. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all served in the military in times of war. Enlisting was his family and civic duty, a way of life. "I knew there was something different about me, perhaps, but that came gradually over several years," he said.

Loomis, an Albuquerque resident who earned a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars for his time in combat, rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves and served as the chief of military education for the U.S. Army Reserve Personnel Center. And then, in 1997, days before he reached his 20-year retirement, he was drummed out of the Army under "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT), a policy instituted under the Clinton administration in 1994 to dissuade military members from being openly gay. The expulsion came after a man with whom he'd had a brief relationship set his house on fire. During the arson investigation, the fire marshal found video evidence that Loomis had engaged in same-sex relationships -- and things snowballed from there. It took more than nine years, but Loomis successfully sued the government for his retirement benefits. Now, he is president of American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER) and a founding member of New Mexico's Bataan chapter of the organization.

Loomis tells his story and talks about his advocacy work on Sunday, Sept. 30, at a panel discussion by members of AVER as part of the 10th anniversary of the Love Armor Project at the Center for Contemporary Arts. Love Armor began with the ambition of supporting military men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan -- where their Humvees were not appropriately armored for the dangers they faced in these war zones. Shirley Klinghoffer, a local sculptor, recruited knitters around the country to create the Humvee Cozy, a large-scale blanket that covered a Humvee M1026 driven by the New Mexico National Guard and which was then transferred to an armature. Humvee Cozy is displayed again at the anniversary exhibition, which includes an opening reception on Friday, Sept. 28, and panel discussions and activities throughout the weekend.

When DADT was passed in 1993, Loomis thought it might be an improvement over the previous all-out ban on LGTBQ servicemembers. "In the long run," he said, "that was not true, because more discharges were made during 'don't ask, don't tell' than were made under the total ban. About 13,000 people were discharged under 'don't ask, don't tell.'" Under DADT, gay soldiers could resign if they were discovered rather than being kicked out, but Loomis refused. He'd promised himself back in 1994 that if he were ever caught, he'd fight whatever punishment came his way. He was lucky enough to have friends and family who stuck by him during his lengthy court battle. "Some people who face that are out in the cold with very little support, and with no money or income." When DADT was repealed in 2011, the idea that gay men and lesbians could serve their country effectively in war went a long way to legitimizing the fight for gay marriage. "If they can't argue that we're a detriment to the military, then they can't argue that we're a detriment to society in general."

Loomis said that one of the lesser-known consequences of being a gay soldier under DADT was the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from living with the threat of being outed -- which could result not only in expulsion from the military, but in verbal, physical, and sexual assault by fellow servicemembers. This PTSD is suffered on top of the battle-related trauma all combat veterans face. Dr. Deborah Good is a certified art therapist, clinical counselor, and moderator of a panel discussion on Saturday, Sept. 29, "Advances in Neuroscience and Art Therapy in the Treatment of PTS Since 2008." She said that all combat vets deal with some degree of post-traumatic stress (PTS) but not everyone fits the diagnostic criteria required to label it as a full-blown disorder. Both PTS and PTSD are infinitely nuanced and individualistic; what one person might shake off can upend another person's psyche.

"You can have PTS from a car accident, or from being in the military, or being raped, or being raped in the military," Good said. "There are many ways that our brains respond to each kind of trauma. Say someone grew up in an alcoholic family and there was a lot of verbal and emotional abuse. That might then set them up to respond to a situation in a different way than someone who grew up in a healthier home. The brain reacts differently depending on the history of the person as well as the situation that they're going through."

Art therapy, with its focus on visual rather than verbal communication, can be effective with trauma survivors who find it difficult to talk about their experiences. "The image language is very strong and very primal," Dr. Good said. The art-making is used as a diagnostic tool for the therapist, who is trained to analyze a number of aspects of creative expression -- but creating art can also be therapeutic for the client, whether in the finished product that helps a sufferer understand his or her own story or in the physical act of working with paint, clay, or other materials. Veterans and their families are welcome to try out some of these techniques at the panel, where supplies will be provided.

Another member of the panel on post-traumatic stress is Dr. Bill Shuttleworth, a professor of neuroscience at the University of New Mexico. In his work, he looks at the effects of trauma on the brain at a cellular level. At the panel, he hopes to dispel the idea that the so-called invisible injury of trauma is something one should just power through simply because it cannot be fixed in the manner of a broken bone. "Folks usually think of the brain as a plug-and-play device rather than a dynamically changing intricate instrument," he said. "When you go through a severe trauma, the physical wiring of your brain changes. It is a real, physical thing -- and you can't fix that with neurosurgery. You can't go in there with a scalpel and change those circuits. You can't really get in there with medicines, either. Medicines can help you get to where you want to go, but you need schooled behavioral therapists. They are the rock stars of PTSD therapy. They are actually rewiring your brain, tinkering with synapses and circuits in a way that no other physician can do."

With the United States engaged in protracted war, ever-increasing numbers of veterans are likely to need treatment for PTS. Research and treatment is a moving frontier. As for LGTBQ rights, the contemporary battle is over whether transgender soldiers can serve openly in the military. Though the current presidential administration has issued orders to the contrary and the final legal status is still up in the air, transgender servicemembers remain in the military at this time. "In the long run, transgender [soldiers] will be allowed to serve," Loomis said. "They've always been with us. They've served clear back to the Civil War."

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Love Armor Project Exhibition & Community Outreach Program

Center for Contemporary Arts, 1050 Old Pecos Trail

Opening reception 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 28; exhibition through Oct. 7

Panels

"Advances in Neuroscience and Art Therapy in the Treatment of PTS Since 2008"

2-4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29

"Fiber Arts: Commemoration, Commentary, and Community"

5-7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29

Library of Congress Veterans History Project: Oral History Training and Interviews workshop

9 a.m.-12 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30

Pre-registration required; email lilli.tichinin@state.nm.us

American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER) panel discussion with Steve Loomis and others

1:30-3:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30

This article is written by Jennifer Levin from The Santa Fe New Mexican and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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