Media Watch: Masks Created by Military Service Members are Unifiers

A pair of black and red masks, one with barbed wire around it and a lock on its mouth, and the other with stitches all across it.

“To see the masks is to ‘see’ the very real impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) and understand how it impacts the military service members’ personal life, relationships and perceptions of their role in the world.” — Girija Kaimal, EdD, assistant professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions, on NEA’s “Art Works” blog.

A pair of black and red masks, one with barbed wire around it and a lock on its mouth, and the other with stitches all across it.
Some of the masks created as a part of the program.

When humans experience pain or horror of a certain level, our brains sometimes won’t let us articulate that experience.

In those cases, experienced often by military service members returned from war zones, having a way that doesn’t require words to express yourself is invaluable.

As a part of a collaborative study looking at masks created by military service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), Girija Kaimal has seen the value of wordless expression firsthand. She explained the experience to the “Art Works” blog of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

“Each mask was a moment in time but encapsulated a story and a warrior’s journey,” Kaimal said. “That is the unique contribution of art therapy: That participants get to express and communicate their life stories in new dimensions and non-verbal ways.”

Kaimal, whose expertise is creative arts therapy, has worked with a program at, NICoE that is part of Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network. Creative Forces is a project of the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Defense. Her research goal was, to analyze the masks created by soldiers as part of a multi-week therapy project to try to find themes and categorize the masks so that insight can be gained into better treatment.


But in doing so, Kaimal was drawn in, as so many others have been.

“Personally, with the analysis of these 370 masks, I felt like I came to know many of the service members through their mask artworks, even though I had never met them in-person,” Kaimal said.

Knowing that past research has shown that humans are wired to respond to faces, Kaimal and her team wondered why the masks “evoked such emotion and interest” when viewed. Part of that, she believes, might be the universal applicability of trauma.

“PTSD is not unique to service members. The masks thus connect us as human beings by revealing the effects of trauma,” she said. “For example, the mask with the lock on its mouth is not just about the challenges of talking in the military but also about the universal challenges of sharing traumatic experiences. And the with the question mark, saying, ‘Why me?’ is a testament to all of us grappling with the uncertainty of the future.”

Across the country, 10 new sites for creative arts therapy will be established to bring the treatment to more service members who might be living with trauma-related conditions. This is a positive step, in Kaimal’s view.

“That ability to say the unsayable is a powerful force for healing,” she concluded.

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