DANVILLE — After graduating from high school in 1986, Judy Brown enlisted in the Army, thinking the military would offer her more opportunities than she had in her Virginia town, where she spent summers pulling tobacco.
But the young private's dreams of traveling the world and serving her country and someday furthering her education were shattered when she was sexually assaulted by a fellow service member at Fort Jackson, S.C.
"When you're in the Army, you're trained to protect yourself from an enemy from a foreign land," said Brown, who now lives in Hillsdale, Ind. "You're not trained to protect yourself from an enemy in the military. You thought the Army was your family. You didn't expect them being the enemy."
Brown developed post-traumatic stress disorder from the assault and from serving a tour in Iraq in 2009, during another stint in the Army. When she returned, she was presented with a small patriotic quilt at Fort Dix, N.J.
"That inspired me to help other veterans," said Brown, who, along with six other women, has been designing and sewing "quilts of honor" for other veterans throughout the country for the last five or so years.
"It's become my therapy," she said of quilting. "I can express myself with different pieces of fabric ... and tell my story. Every soldier has a story, and no two are the same, just like no two quilts are the same."
One of Brown's personal creations, "Dog Tags," is on display at "Veterans Experience 2017," a special exhibit at the Danville Art League showcasing art by veterans.
This is the fifth year for the show, put on by the art league and Recreation Therapy Service at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System.
"It's been great to see these veterans learn how to express themselves in different artistic ways," said Suzi Robinson, a recreation therapist at the veterans hospital who introduced art as therapy to veterans suffering from mental-health issues such as PTSD, military sexual trauma, depression and addiction; those with physical disabilities; and those experiencing homelessness.
Some veterans were reluctant to try at first, fearing they wouldn't be any good at it, Robinson said.
"That's how they feel about a lot of things in life," she said.
But Robinson persisted, knowing that art could provide a healthy coping mechanism, allowing them to process trauma and express their feelings instead of bottling them up inside.
She said some of the veterans have shown real artistic ability, including a Decatur man who is showing paintings of a tank, a tiger and an alligator, and another who is now submitting his poetry to national writing programs. They and others have developed their self-esteem and camaraderie with others that they didn't have before.
"I love hearing all of the stories behind" the art, Robinson said. "And I love watching the veterans grow and be proud of their work and realize that they have purpose and value."
The result: More than 70 pieces, including drawings, acrylic and oil paintings, photographs, wood and ceramic sculptures, poetry and textiles from veterans served by the Danville medical center or one of Illiana's Community Outpatient Clinics located in Decatur, Mattoon, Springfield and Peoria.
Brown was moved to create "Dog Tags" by the 22 veterans who are lost each day to suicide and an effort in her state to help Indiana veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injury with hyperbaric oxygen therapy, or HBOT.
The 64-by-84-inch quilt is adorned with 22 stars, a bald eagle representing military servicemen and women's strength and courage, and above it, a set of dog tags with the engravings "PTSD" and "TBI."
A tan patch represents Marine veteran Rick Baum of Indianapolis, whose son Ben, a soldier with the Army National Guard, was lost to PTSD and TBI. An olive green patch represents a Vietnam veteran who was helped by HBOT.
There's also a swatch from Brown's combat duty uniform with two laces, representing the soldiers that keep trying to hang on from the signature wound (brain injury) received in recent wars, and her Iraq War medal.
Brown said it tells the story of Indiana Sen. Mike Delph, a former Army reservist, and others' efforts to create a state lottery ticket whose proceeds would be used to launch a pilot program to treat veterans with HBOT at one of the 35 hospitals in the state with HBOT chambers. Retired Brig. Gen. James Bauerle of Carmel said the treatment hasn't been approved for PTSD or TBI, but has been approved for 14 other medical issues.
Bauerle and other supporters were frustrated that Delph's bill was killed, and now an Indiana House committee is considering a bill that would fund vetarans programs with existing lottery sales. That may generate about $125,000 a quarter, which "is a nominal amount" considering the net sales for lottery tickets sold in that state were over $292 million last year.
"They killed the bill. But I can still tell its story through my quilt," said Brown, who hopes to see the quilt hang in the Indiana statehouse one day.
While PTSD caused Brown to feel like "I've always had to watch my back," she's proud of where she is. Her husband is an Army veteran, and their daughter is currently serving in the Army in Alaska.
Brown, who medically retired from the Army in January 2012, received a degree in visual communication from Ivy Tech in Terre Haute. And last September, she graduated from Rush Hospital in Chicago's Road Home program. She said that program, along with services at the local VA, have helped her deal with her assault and "help me stay grounded."
She's most proud of the fact that she's advocating for veterans.
"Just being here today, I was able to meet two vets and hook them up with the Wounded Warrior and Road Home project," she said, while setting up for the show.
If you go
The "Veterans Experience 2017" art show opens today and runs through March 30 at the Danville Art League, 320 N. Franklin St.
It is free and open to the public from 6 to 9 p.m. Mondays and 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday through Saturday.
People can meet the artists at an open house from 1 to 3 p.m. March 11. Refreshments will be served.