MOORHEAD — Veterans of wars and other conflicts are known to keep some of their experiences to themselves upon returning home.

A local historian recalls a Moorhead service member who said when he came back from Vietnam, no one asked how he felt and he didn’t think they would be interested, anyway.

Markus Krueger, programming director at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, said an exhibition featuring local veterans, who are using art to work through trauma, serves as a powerful voice for them.

Veterans from the Korean War, Vietnam War and more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are represented.

“This is veterans talking to you, and I think it's important to listen,” Krueger said.

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"Warriors in the North: Healing Through Art" highlights the creativity of local veterans through their paintings, photographs, writings, music and mask making.

The Warriors in the North: Healing Through Art is an exhibit of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, held at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. Chris Flynn / The Forum
The Warriors in the North: Healing Through Art is an exhibit of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, held at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. Chris Flynn / The Forum

The exhibition is on display in the Hjemkomst Center, 202 First Ave. N., in Moorhead.

A special live veterans’ showcase featuring writing and music performances was held Wednesday, Nov. 10.

The exhibition includes portraits by Vietnam veteran and photographer Ken Andersen, who initiated the project, paintings by a local combat veteran who chooses to be anonymous and a depiction of the journey taken by veteran Joshua Zeis five years ago with a 100 pound ice rucksack on his back.

Some of the veterans involved are professional artists, while others took part after seeking care through the Fargo VA Health Care System.

Margo Norton, Ph.D., a psychologist at the VA, specializes in post-deployment mental health care of veterans and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

She also facilitates the mask-making project at the VA, modeled after one developed by Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, years ago.

It can help veterans deal with the anxiety and shame they often feel.

“They fear they’ll be judged even by, and especially by, their loved ones,” Norton said.

The nonverbal aspect of healing

Norton said trauma can reside in our brains and bodies in ways words alone cannot capture, and mask-making can get to those nonverbal elements of healing.

Veterans may feel they have one "mask" they wear for society and a different one for how they see themselves.

One veteran, alongside their mask, wrote “Every morning I wake up. Which face will I wear today?”

Another designed a mask covered with negative statements about being unloved and feeling like their life was an endless bottom.

“This is how I felt coming home. I did not trust or believe in anything. All I felt was nothing,” the veteran wrote.

A mask created by a local veteran is on display as part of Warriors in the North at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. Robin Huebner / The Forum
A mask created by a local veteran is on display as part of Warriors in the North at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. Robin Huebner / The Forum

Another wrote about being raped while on active duty by another military member.

“I am silenced by fear, by anger; I am silenced by all the things I can’t say.”

A man who served in Iraq described his face always being covered in dirt and fine sand, and his eyes burning with sweat.

He put tin foil behind the eyes of the mask to represent how he dealt with PTSD and other difficulties.

“I wrapped them up like a baked potato and let them steam in my mind,” he wrote.

Many of the masks and paintings in the exhibition depict the dark realities of war and are disturbing.

Krueger said while he wants everyone to take in the exhibit, parents should walk through first to be sure it’s appropriate for their children to see.

Markus Krueger is the Programming Director for the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Markus Krueger is the Programming Director for the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. Chris Flynn / The Forum

Healing through music

Dan Hudson, 48, of Lake Park, Minnesota, grew up on a small grain farm in rural Colfax, North Dakota, and gravitated toward a career in law enforcement and the military.

He was working in the Fargo Police Department, doing narcotics investigations and firearms training, when he was deployed with the North Dakota Air National Guard’s 119th Wing to the Middle East after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Hudson said his traumas related to law enforcement and military service tend to blend together and become compounded.

“Anytime that I just kind of needed to escape for a while, it was music,” he said.

Dan Hudson is a former Fargo police officer and war veteran. In March of 2021 Hudson and his wife started Operation Check Six, a non-profit to help military and first responder trauma survivors through the arts. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Dan Hudson is a former Fargo police officer and war veteran. In March of 2021 Hudson and his wife started Operation Check Six, a non-profit to help military and first responder trauma survivors through the arts. Chris Flynn / The Forum

Hudson runs Operation Check Six, a nonprofit that connects local veterans with musicians to put their writings and experiences to music. The name is a nod to the aviation term about situational awareness, which was relayed by the base commander right before Hudson's deployment.

“It means watch your back or watch your partner’s back,” Hudson said.

He helped connect a local veteran who wrote a poem about sexual assault with independent pop & country artist Alyssa Ruffin, who recorded it as a song titled “Collateral Damage.”

Hudson also builds guitars for veterans or their family members, some of which are on display at the Hjemkomst as part of the exhibit.

“It is so humbling to be a small link in this big chain,” Hudson said. “I think it will only grow, link by link.”

"Warriors in the North: Healing Through Art" runs through March 6, 2022.

The masks designed by local veterans depict personal experiences of trauma and recovery.  Chris Flynn / The Forun
The masks designed by local veterans depict personal experiences of trauma and recovery. Chris Flynn / The Forun