A UNH News Story
WEST HAVEN, CONN. — They gathered together over poems, songs, paintings, photography and improvisational drama, a group of war veterans and UNH students, bridging not only the mile that separates the VA Connecticut Healthcare System from the university but also their age differences and life experiences.
They are part of “Exit 43,” a collaborative project that provides veterans with the opportunity to serve as artistic mentors in the community while raising public awareness about veterans’ issues. Each of the students and the veterans is creating a new work of art based on the experience, and the artwork will be featured in “Exit 43 – An Exhibition” at the West Haven Veterans’ Museum and Learning Center from April 16 through May 4.
The public is invited to an opening reception from 3-5 p.m. at the museum at 30 Hood Terrace in West Haven. The museum is open Wednesdays and Fridays from noon to 3 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The project takes its name from exit 43 off I-95, the First Avenue-West Haven exit that leads both to UNH and to the VA hospital.
“It is an artistic collaboration, but it is also a lesson in empathy, in understanding, in the ways that loss and grief and hope are universal experiences,” said Janet Zamparo, the project manager of “Exit 43” as well as an artist, educator and director of Arts Connections for Everyone. “Art is disarming. If people build walls, art can help tear them down.”
Roberta Blake, a music therapist at VA Connecticut, said the UNH students took part in one of the VA’s creative arts therapy programs in visual arts, music, writing or drama run by VA creative arts therapists. “The students saw how creative arts can be used to tell a story, express a feeling, connect with oneself and others and communicate,” she said.
The UNH students participating were Samantha Guash, Emily Anne McGinty, Dannielle Gladu, Kristen Leining, Briana Mangiacapra, Kate Saccone, Kristie Patterson, Alexandria Rossy, Keegan O’Connor, Andrea Ortiz, Tannu Singh, Ahjahta McDuffie, Mahoganie Brown, Ashley Guzman, Amanda Blankson, Stephany Parra and Marissa Medina.
Emily McGinty, a UNH junior majoring in liberal studies, said, “I was apprehensive at first because we were a group of young adults entering in on what was a very private experience. When we arrived, we were welcomed with open arms. The veterans were proud of their work and were extremely talented. They also were very forthcoming, sharing as much as they could about their experiences in Vietnam. It was very humbling to see that the men who gave up so much to fight for the country were again giving back, but this time to the youth.”
Angela Cortese, coordinator of UNH’s Office of Community Service, said student feedback on the program “has been just amazing. The students found the experience very moving.”
It is fitting that the pieces of art resulting from the collaboration will be on display along with artifacts dating back to the Revolutionary War, said Beth Sabo, the commissioner of public works for the city of West Haven and vice president of the museum board. “This is an incredible partnership,” she said.
Allan Garry, a Vietnam veteran, said the collaboration was important and that he was struck by how engaged the students were. “The kids were caring, curious, intelligent,” he said. “When we talked with them about what the war was like, they had some real serious, thoughtful questions.”
Garry was just 22 when was sent to Vietnam and assigned to the American Division’s Graves Registration, Search and Recovery unit, identifying fellow soldiers killed in combat. Upon his return to the States, he started college, began to write, had a family and hoped to become a teacher and writer. But he said he began to struggle emotionally and found he could no longer write. Diagnosed with PTSD, Garry has been in the VA’s PTSD outpatient programs for 17 years.
Today he is a published poet, playwright and musician. The creative arts therapy programs gave him back his writing, he said, and, in many ways, his life.