Participants share experiences at military arts symposium

By MARY BARCZAK AND CRYSTAL WYLIE | he Richmond (Ky.) Register | Published: July 6, 2012

TRICHMOND — Clayton Murwin learned what his two true passions in life were at an early age: art and supporting the military in a “labor of love.”

Murwin is a presenter for the Military Experience and the Arts Symposium that runs through Saturday at Eastern Kentucky University.

He was homeless for about two years shortly after leaving high school and credits his survival to the help of a homeless Vietnam veteran named Charles who made sure Murwin got food and was safe.

“I asked him one day if he was happy living the way he was,” Murwin stammered. “He told me about all the things that happened to him while in Vietnam...” Charles just was happy to be alive, the 48-year old Murwin said.

He took Charles’ advice, got his GED and then an associate’s degree in computer graphics.

Today, he is president of Heroes Fallen Studios Inc., which produces graphic novels with military themes. The non-profit organization donates to service charities.

The novels are based the stories of real military personnel.

At a table in EKU’s Powell Building lobby, Murwin showed the novels that resemble comic books along with some of the military portraits he had drawn.

Symposium participants have been attending workshops such as “The Poetic Line” and “Warrior Art” that were conducted Thursday.

Army reservist Jessica Dittbenner, who designed the cover art for “The Journal of Military Experience” volume two, said she always knew she wanted to be in the military. The journal’s second volume was released during a Thursday evening program in the Keen Johnson Building.

“When I was little I would always be running around the yard digging foxholes and stuff,” she said.

Dittbenner, a resident of Lenexa, Kan., said she hopes people will grasp some of the complexities of military life through her cover art.

Other participants also shared why they were compelled to attend the program.

Pfc. Scott Lee, a combat veteran of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War came from Louisville to participate in Thursday’s workshops.

As a person who struggles with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), he doesn’t leave his house often. However, he felt very comfortable in the company of those who could relate to his wartime experience.

The artwork, created by fellow soldiers, “really struck” Lee, he said, “because you can tell some of the artists were really struggling with some deep-seated emotions.”

Lee started a blog titled “PTSD: A Soldier’s Perspective” that, at first, was a way for him to vent his angry. The blog soon transformed into “something cathartic,” he said.

Giving a voice to his experience makes living with PTSD a lot easier, Lee said.

“There’s a constant battle between bringing those emotions back up and pushing them back down,” he said.

But, positively expressing those emotions through writing is a better than “engaging in that dark side that comes home with us,” Lee said.

Excerpt from Lee’s blog:

“We don't need people to understand us completely. But, we do not wish to be alone in our pain or joy anymore. We need people close to us who are willing to learn about our condition and dish and take some s**t — then still be there.”

Capt. Wanda Ingram Johnson, from Elizabethtown, served 16 years before she was discharged from the military.

After suffering from Military Sexual Trauma (MST), stemming from an incident that occurred during her enlistment, Johnson said she began using illegal drugs to self-medicate her condition and was soon discharged.

Johnson didn’t realize she also suffered from PTSD, as well. She expected support from the military, she said, but instead she was “pushed out.”

Growing up, Johnson always thought the military was a huge “melting pot of individuals from all walks of life.”

But she soon realized that as woman and African-American she would have to go above and beyond her male counterparts to get any sort of recognition or promotion, Johnson said.

Even today, with more women in military positions, the U.S. military still need to totally change its attitudes toward women and how they are treated.

“I’m really sad right now,” Johnson said. “I hope that writing about my experience might help someone else.”

Johnson came to the Military Experience and the Arts Symposium to get tips for her writing. Although she had always considered herself a writer, she hopes the event will “boost her enthusiasm” to tell her own story.

Distributed by MCT Information Services