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Veterans find new lens on life

Symbolic words translate into thoughtful images

Three participants of the Veterans Photo Recovery Program, run through the Veterans Administration's Homeless Veteran Rehabilitation Program in Menlo Park, have learned to overcome the trauma of war and renewed their sense of purpose. Learn more about the program here.

Tom Hurst: 'Peace With Hope'

Finding hope came slowly for Tom Hurst.

Hurst, now 66, had joined the Marine Corps when he was 17, serving in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972. He returned with post-traumatic stress disorder but didn't seek help until his early 40s. "It was a constant battle to stay sober. At 60, I was busted for drugs," he said.

Eventually, he enrolled in the Veterans Photo Recovery Program.

"I was supposed to take pictures of things I saw hope in. But I just took pictures. I never saw hope in them. Slowly, hope started rising out of nothing, and it got me to understand. Before, it was just a four-letter word that meant nothing," Hurst said.

"I took pictures of things that reminded me of things that I liked, things I could make a story of," he said.

About two-thirds of the way through the program, he began taking pictures consciously.

One image is of an empty chair. The chair "is for my brothers who are not here. It remains there for them until there is a place for me in heaven. Until I get there, there's a part of me that will always be gone," he said.

Hurst, who said he's made a comeback, now mentors veterans in drug-treatment court and lives happily with his family in Butte County.

Shelley Raab: 'Finding My Higher Power'

Air Force Sgt. Shelley Raab's trauma came at the hands of her fellow soldiers, the same brothers she would have to depend on in war.

"I was always very vulnerable, always dominated by men," she said of her experiences while stationed in England for three years beginning in 1976. Raped by a superior and sexually harassed by other men, she developed post-traumatic stress disorder.

She married a brilliant man who started a company, and they had three kids. But they divorced after 14 years of marriage. She burned through the settlement money by drinking and using drugs.

"I was a millionaire, but when I entered the Homeless Veterans Rehabilitation Project, I had $200 to my name," she said.

The Veterans Photo Recovery Program rekindled her love of photography, a pursuit she began while in England. Raab's pictures are about nature: opening petals, trees, reflections in water. Present in her images is a sense of spirituality. In one image a crow has its back turned to the viewer. The dark form is like a sentinel, watching and waiting.

Raab, 59, said that crow, which she named Sober, was the beginning of her awakening. While she was living on the Menlo Park campus, the crow began to follow her and kept following her for two years, even repeatedly hitting her on her head.

"He guided me. He was part of my spiritual transformation. He would even know my car, and he would fly on the car next to me, looking at me," she said. "I took it as a big blessing. I began to love myself again."

Raab is now working part time as a professional photographer and hopes to continue in the field.

"I feel really rich inside. I have inner peace."

Dwayne Malone: 'Sitting With Hope'

Peace and stillness infuse the photographs of former Army Specialist Dwayne Malone, who had dabbled in professional photography before attending the Veterans Photo Recovery Project.

The program "helped me to share the world through my eyes. The theme of hope really helped me to share how I see the world. It helped me by getting me out of my head," he said.

Malone, 45, had served in the communications field, with most of his service stateside from January 1990 to February 1994. He was stationed in Somalia and did mostly humanitarian work, and he helped clean up in the U.S. after Hurricane Andrew.

But childhood abuse had caused him to be angry. At 15, he began drinking to cope. He thought the military would help him change his life.

"But it just put a bigger Band-Aid over my trauma," he said.

Five years ago he started each morning by drinking whiskey. But now he has been sober for four months. A new graduate of the photo program, he said he looks for connections that bring peace and calm.

That discovery is reflected in his choice of images: a stone Buddha juxtaposed with flower petals; a tiny stone elephant on a brilliant red sculpture in a garden.

Below each image, prose explains his journey through the words that Susan Quaglietti coaxed out of him:

"The reciprocation of PEACE ... you can't be peaceful without peace around you.

"CARING for self includes sobriety, mindful eating and feeding the soul."

"STRENGTH in being tough but tender."

"Like a rock in the sea, the wave comes and goes but STABILITY remains."

Veterans photography exhibit and events

All events are free and will be held at Cubberley Community Center, Studio U7, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

Exhibit: Through Nov. 18

What: "Seeing Hope Photographs from the Veterans Photo Recovery Project."

When: Thursday-Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

Veterans Day events: Nov. 11

What: "Seeing Hope": Susan Quaglietti discusses using photography and prose to assist mental health recovery, 10 a.m.

• "Writing With Heart": Workshop with Barbara Leivent, 11 a.m.

• "Yoga Nidra": Demonstration by Ellen Noon, 1 p.m.

• "Heart of a Soldier": Photography workshop with Conrad Johnson, 2 p.m.

Film screening: Nov. 18

What: Closing reception and film: "Visions of Warriors," directed by Ming Lai, a documentary about the Veterans Photo Recovery Project.

When: Reception starts at noon; discussion starts at 3 p.m.; film screening at 4 p.m.

More information is available at facebook.com/visionsofwarriors.

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