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Soldiers in the River Hospital program created these "PTSD masks", now on display at the Antique Boat Museum. Photo: David Sommerstein
Soldiers in the River Hospital program created these "PTSD masks", now on display at the Antique Boat Museum. Photo: David Sommerstein

St. Lawrence River as therapy for Ft. Drum soldiers with PTSD

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A new collaboration in the Thousand Islands will allow Fort Drum soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder to harness the healing qualities of the St. Lawrence River.

River Hospital in Alexandria Bay runs the nation's first outpatient therapy program for active-duty servicemen and women. 30 soldiers, many of them veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, spend every weekday at the hospital. They use group therapy and art therapy to learn to cope with the after effects of war.

Now the soldiers will display their art work at the Antique Boat Museum in nearby Clayton.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

River Hospital in Alexandria Bay. Photo: David Sommerstein
River Hospital in Alexandria Bay. Photo: David Sommerstein
Every morning at 9, those 30 soldiers are bussed the half-hour drive from Fort Drum. When they arrive at the River Hospital, they're met by counselors, therapists and doctors to help them heal from the wounds of war.

But really, there's another, much bigger care provider: the St. Lawrence River itself.

"When you walk out the back door of our clinic, you're right on the St. Lawrence. It's peaceful. It's serene," says Brad Frey, who directs the River Community Wellness Program. He says whether it's boating, fishing, or just sitting there watching the water go by, the St. Lawrence is a therapist. "Relaxation is a big problem at times with some of the soldiers. The river and the peaceful backdrop helps us get them to be more relaxed."

Frey knows firsthand. He served 25 years in the Army, the last 12 years at Fort Drum. He was a physician's assistant in Afghanistan. He says after a decade of wars, thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan vets struggle with the effects of PTSD – hypervigilance, flashbacks, avoidance and anxiety – and they need help.

"There's not enough services at Fort Drum or Jefferson County. There's not enough services in New York State. There's not enough services nationwide to handle the demand that both of these wars have created."

The program uses a lot of creative arts therapy to help soldiers express themselves. Now with a new partnership with the Antique Boat Museum, those soldiers will have a place to actually show their work.

A glass case in the museum's entryway holds some of the soldiers' works of art. Most prominent are what the therapists call "PTSD masks," cardboard masks that soldiers decorate at the beginning of the program. Frey says as they continue through the 4-6 week program, you can literally see the soldiers' progress in the colors they use in their art.

Therapy program director Brad Frey. Photo: David Sommerstein
Therapy program director Brad Frey. Photo: David Sommerstein
Frey says black and red are typically the colors used at first. "They represent the darkness that the soldiers are feeling," says Frey. "It's amazing to see soldiers that create something so dark and sinister like this, at the end of program they're painting something that's much more peaceful," says Frey, shifting to lighter and brighter colors as their therapy progresses. "A lot of guys say they're moving from the darkness into the light."

The Antique Boat Museum is also offering free entry to all servicemen, women, and veterans through the Blue Star Museum program. And it's making its fleet of vintage boats available for the soldiers in the therapy program. Museum Director Fritz Hager says it will be a part of the meditation and relaxation portion of the soldiers' therapy.

"They can get out on the River and enjoy the St. Lawrence River as a part of that process of healing," says Hager. "And this community, all of us, ought to be doing what we can to help out the United State Army and all the personnel connected with the Fort, and this is one small way that the Antique Boat Museum can do that."

In the exhibit at the Boat Museum, the soldier-artists are anonymous. Brad Frey says that's because the stigma associated with PTSD remains strong. "Unfortunately, there's still a mentality out there that it's a form of weakness, when, in fact, it takes a strong individual to really step forward and say I need some help."

The soldiers' exhibit at the Antique Boat Museum will expand as more men and women go through the 4-6 week River Hospital therapy program, a growing testament to more soldiers seeking the path from darkness to light.

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