John Koelsch is a well-respected veteran who served as an Army Combat Platoon Leader in the Vietnam War. A Salem resident, Koelsch loves few things more than catching up with friends and making memories.
Recently, he got to do both. On Friday, September 1, Koelsch and many other veterans were celebrated during a Creative Arts Festival awards ceremony at the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC). “The main purpose of the event was to recognize the participation and accomplishments of the veterans – both locally and nationally – and to acknowledge the support of staff and volunteers who worked at making it happen,” he said.
The National Veterans Creative Arts Festival started as two separate festivals in 1981. “Muriel Barbour, then chief of recreation therapy at the McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va., created the visual arts competition, VET ARTS, as an observance of the International Year of Disabled Persons,” Lisbeth Woodward, Salem VAMC Music Therapy Internship Director, said. “Shirley Jefferies, a recreation therapist at the Waco, Texas, VA Medical Center, initiated the performing arts competition, The National Music Competition for Veterans, a few months later.” For the last nine years, the Salem VAMC has facilitated a local veterans creative arts program and entered the winning entries into the National Veterans Creative Arts Competition.
Each of the five divisions that the veterans compete in – art, creative writing, dance, drama and music – include both individual and group categories. Within the divisions, there are 249 categories a veteran can choose from.
Morgan McAfee arrived at the Salem VAMC on Friday around 11 a.m. Much to her delight, several family members were in attendance. “My family has supported me since day one,” the veteran said. “I’m really glad that they were here today to experience this with me.”
In 2016, 3,251 Veterans from 126 VA medical facilities entered the art, music, drama, dance and creative writing competitions. According to Lisbeth Woodward, approximately 130 medal-winning Veterans earned an invitation to participate in the 2016 Festival in Jackson, Mississippi.
Brett Robbins gets to work with veterans on a regular basis, something that he really enjoys. “I don’t know of any other population that is so deserving of our gratitude, compassion, respect and honor,” the Salem VAMC Public Affairs Officer said. “These men and women selflessly offered their lives to defend our country, defend our way of living, defend our freedoms and defend each and every one of us.” Robbins has a connection to veterans, as he is one himself.
“For the 2017 local/national creative arts competition, we have more than doubled our participants, most of whom are already preparing for the 2018 local and national event,” Lisbeth said. “Our Veterans have gained a sense of self-esteem, pride, joy and self-expression over the years.”
Are John Koelsch and his fellow veterans already looking forward to the next competition? The answer, as expected: of course. “Virtually every veteran who has participated has found the experience fun and rewarding. Most entrants become repeat competitors,” he said. “The ones I’ve worked most closely with look forward to competing every year.”
As long as a veteran is registered for services at Salem VAMC, he or she is eligible to participate in any of the competitions. For more information, contact Lisbeth Woodward at 540-982-2463 ext. 2781.