Local veteran starts arts festival to promote healing, combat vet suicide

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — A local veteran who says he found healing in art will host the first Austin Veterans Arts Festival starting this weekend.

Glenn Towery didn’t know he was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder when he returned from the Vietnam War.

“I didn’t know that I was practicing healing when I first started becoming an artist,” Towery told KXAN Thursday.

Thinking back to his own suicide attempt in the 1980s, Towery started working on the festival a few years ago to help other veterans heal.

  • If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can contact the National Suicide Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or get help here.

The festival kicks off Saturday, Oct. 12, with a celebration and concert at the Austin ISD Performing Arts Center. The show is free, but Towery is asking for donations to help prevent veteran suicide.

Over the next five weeks, veteran artists will exhibit paintings, dance routines, music and other works that have helped them make the transition from the military to the civilian world.

“These veterans stood up and they said that they were willing to give their lives for people that they didn’t even know, for an idea, for a principle, for country, for God,” Towery said. “The least we can do is support them in their quest to be whole again.”

View the full schedule here.

Dancing into healing

When she left the military in 2011, Elisabeth Joy discovered it wasn’t easy to go back to the civilian life she left behind more than a decade earlier.

A pilot with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, Joy deployed twice to the Middle East, flying Chinook helicopters through combat zones. “It was a war,” she said. “People were being shot down; people had died.”

She came to terms with the fact that the next day might be her last.

“Each day is met with that while you’re serving in a combat zone, so it stays with you when you come home,” she said.

Joy settled in Austin after leaving the armed forces, went to the University of Texas at Austin for a graduate degree, got married, and had a baby. But the invisible wounds took their toll. Her marriage didn’t work out, and she struggled to find a path when every turn felt like “hitting a brick wall.”

“It got to a point where I had nothing left. And I figured, if I’m going to go, I’m going to go out and do what I want to do until my last breath. And that was when I found dance.”

Elisabeth Joy dances in a class at Austin Community College on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

Joy started taking dance classes in 2016 and discovered it was a positive force to help her stay present and start to heal. “Dance is bringing me back into my body fully,” she said.

She’ll be performing six times throughout the festival, including with a dance group at the kickoff on Saturday. Joy hopes she can help provide space for other veterans to “find an all-inclusive place without judgement to let us process and heal.”

By the numbers

Veterans commit suicide at a rate nearly double that of the population as a whole, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ latest annual report on suicide prevention published last month.

Nearly 17 veterans a day took their own lives in 2017, the last year data is available, including more than one a day in Texas.

Towery’s goal is to change those statistics through the meditative nature of the arts.

Glenn Towery poses with one of his paintings. (Photo courtesy: Glenn Towery)

“You have to be present to practice art,” he said, and that can help combat flashbacks to the emotional trauma inflicted on soldiers, as it did for him.

He organized the festival, intended to be a nationwide gathering of veteran artists and their supporters, to open the door not only for other vets to find a way to heal, but to encourage the general public to support veterans in that journey.

“We have this opportunity to heal many many veterans using the arts,” Towery said in a direct appeal to central Texans. “And I’m asking you, I’m pleading to you, take that opportunity.”

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