by Vicky Smith
Military Experience & the Arts (MEA) brought together military and civilian cultures during its second national symposium, held May 14-17 at Cameron University.
According to a press release, MEA is “a national 501 (C) 3 non-profit organization dedicated to serving military veterans and the artistic experience primarily through honoring unbiased creative expression.”
The press release also stated that the event offered over 70 skill-building workshops, daily meals, transportation, “a safe environment for social exchange among veterans” and four featured performers, including Exit 12 Dance Company, keynote speaker Benjamin Patton, theater actor Doug Berky and Oklahoma flutist Albert Gray Eagle.
Director of the MEA symposium Jason Poudrier, who is an instructor in the Cameron University Office of Teaching and Learning, said the main purpose of the event was to “directly connect military veterans with the arts.”
Poudrier said the turnout of the event was wonderful.
“Overall, we had about 175 [people] involved. That’s despite the storms,” he said. “Everything I wanted to offer, as far as the event goes, was offered.”
The featured performers are nationally recognized, and Poudrier said he enjoyed each one.
“As far as the most moving performance,” he said. “I would have to say it would be the collaborative, [improvised] performance of Albert Gray Eagle and Exit 12 Dance Company…You could see the push and pull of the arts happening as Albert Gray Eagle played and the Exit 12 performers danced. It was magical.”
Although he was pleased with the event, he said he hopes more local veterans can attend future events, since the majority of veteran attendees were from out of state.
“One of my main reasons for bringing it to Lawton, Okla., was that I believe it was something that the Lawton/Ft. Sill community so needed,” he said. “I wanted this event to be a start of several other events…The participants that did arrive have already reached out to me to organize other smaller events, so we know it will build in this community.”
Poudrier said veterans and their families actually experienced healing through the arts, which was a goal of the symposium.
“We actually had an email afterwards talking about a couple that…brought their kids along,” he said, “but they actually weren’t their kids. They were the kids of a military veteran.”
Poudrier said the military veteran could no longer care for her kids and had recently chosen to be homeless.
“They [the couple] said it was wonderful to watch the kids experience the arts,” he said, “[and to] actually watch them work through some of their emotions that they have with the relationship with their mom.”
Other goals of the symposium were for veterans to experience healing through sharing their stories and through connecting with representatives of organizations, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV).
“One of the cool things that happened during these art workshops was people talked about their stories in safe environments,” he said, “and then you have DAV reps there, and they can ask, ‘So do you get compensation for that? Have you filled out the paperwork to do this?’”
Personally, Poudrier even experienced healing through directing the symposium.
“I think the biggest thing for me was a rebuilding of confidence,” he said. “When I was discharged from the military, I faced depression; I faced survivor’s guilt, post-traumatic stress, and I lost a lot of confidence in myself. When I was in, I had a very successful military career until I was diagnosed with PTSD, and I was profiled from deployment.”
He said in order to receive a medical discharge, he had to prove how disabled he was.
“I literally had to fill out forms saying how dysfunctional I was,” he said, “and so that basically destroyed a lot of my self-esteem…I became very afraid of taking on tasks because I felt as if I was going to personally destroy them or I was incapable of doing them.”
According to Poudrier, the symposium enabled him to heal because it showed him once again what he is capable of doing.
“It was a success,” he said. “I can be the leader that I was when I was in the U.S. Army and I was at the peak of my career. I can do that now in the civilian world, and I can do things that are meaningful and helpful to others.
“I want other veterans to know that just because they are filling out those forms for the military doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be able to function in the civilian world. They [can] continue to work through those things and become somebody who is actually greater than they ever were before from their military experiences.”
For Poudrier, Cameron University was his safe place when he transitioned from the military to the civilian environment, so he was happy with the campus-wide support he received throughout the event. He received help from Professor Katherine Liontas-Warren with the Cameron Art Department, Mr. David Bublitz, student James Wilson and the custodial staff – just to name a few.
“I think the event really reflected positively on Cameron,” he said. “Everyone was like, ‘Wow, Cameron’s a beautiful campus; this place is awesome.’…I want more soldiers to know how wonderful Cameron can be, how personable most of the instructors are [and] how willing they are to work with you.”
For people who were unable to attend the MEA symposium, Poudrier hopes they are able to attend future events in the Lawton/Ft. Sill area.
“You have to take advantage of those moments when they’re here,” he said, “and you have to look at your life and say, ‘What’s the most meaningful thing I could be doing with my life right now?’
“You start realizing how things that you think are important, in the grand scheme of your life, may not be as important as you think they are in the moment in which they seem so important.”
Poudrier said that the next national MEA symposium is expected to be held in 2018 and the location is under final deliberation. If anyone is interested in organizing a local event that involves the arts or veterans, Poudrier said he is willing to help provide guidance.
“They can email me [at firstname.lastname@example.org]” he said. “I’ll put them into contact with the workshop leaders in order to bring them out…The infrastructure’s there.”