Second Lady Karen Pence visits Fort Campbell’s Intrepid Spirit

During a Feb. 28 visit to Intrepid Spirit Center – Fort Campbell, Mrs. Karen Pence, Second Lady of the United States, meets with Art Therapist Harriet Ellner, left, to discuss the healing powers of art therapy. Mrs. Leah Esper, wife of Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper, accompanied Mrs. Pence on her visit to Fort Campbell. (U.S. Army Photo by David E. Gillespie)
February 28, 2020

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Second Lady of the United States Karen Pence visited Blanchfield Army Community Hospital’s Intrepid Spirit Center today to see how its art therapy program is helping Soldiers recover from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress.

Pence is an advocate for art therapy and dedicates time to bring more attention and understanding to the practice. Art therapy promotes participants’ ability to unlock emotional expression through non-verbal as well as verbal communication through the use of art materials, the creative process to support and improve cognitive functioning and emotional well-being.

“Art therapy is really good for anybody who has gone through or is going through any kind of trauma. People may confuse it with therapeutic art, where you may relax and unwind creating art, but art therapy has a mental health component to it, where a trained therapist helps clients through art,” explained Pence.

The Second Lady, joined by Leah Esper, wife of U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, met with Intrepid Spirit’s art therapist, Harriet Ellner and Soldiers who have participated in her art therapy sessions. Ellner is a board-certified art therapist and is part of the Intrepid Spirit’s multi-disciplinary rehabilitation team, which meets regularly to discuss and monitor patients’ progress and to make sure patients receive the care that meets their unique needs and goals.

“Initially when I went to art therapy I thought it was going to be something silly like arts and crafts, but it ended up being a process of digging deep inside me figuring out what it was that I was truly feeling,” said Sienna Madurski, an Army veteran seen at the Intrepid Spirit Center. “In the beginning Ms. Ellner has you draw what you feel in each part of your body and it gives you the ability to express it and it make you realize that you may be hurting in places you hadn’t thought about.”

Art therapy is used in a number of treatment programs nationwide and has provided relief for those experiencing TBI and PTS. Both can have long-term and sometimes severe effects on service members’ lives, affecting their ability to work, manage basic living tasks, and interact with others – even with their own families.

The creative process can help to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and increase insight. Ellner facilitates and helps participants to explore the thoughts and feelings associated with their art. Within the group setting, it also promotes social skills, through relatedness to others experiences.

“It has helped me to express and open-up with some of my darkest and most closely kept issues that I have been dealing with. I have held most of these feelings, emotions, fears, medical issues close hold. The art therapy provided a means to open up and express, with the help of the therapist guiding and supporting the entire time. Everything that has been bottled up in me just flowed out,” said art therapy participant Lt. Col. Andy Wagner. Wagner sustained a TBI and PTSD in combat. “After the session, after making my mask [art project] and talking about it with my group, I can’t emphasize enough what a relief, or lifting of a huge burden, it has been. Literally, a huge weight has been lifted off of me. My mood is better and over all I feel pretty good.”

Art therapy is just one of a number of programs available to the medical team at the Intrepid Spirit Center to help Soldiers. Medical experts provide specialized care using traditional methods, such as neurological exams, physical therapy and sleep studies, combined with integrated health treatments, including acupuncture, mindfulness and music therapy for Soldiers with TBI of all severities. Provider recommended treatments continue on a case-by-case basis to help patients return to their highest level of functioning to support healing and recovery.

As patients work with medical providers and case managers, they get personalized outpatient rehabilitation services, symptom management, and treatment plans. Ninety-three percent of active duty Soldiers who complete the Intrepid Spirit program at Fort Campbell return to duty.