Marine art therapy, led by Melissa Walker, helping vets recover

The image of a strong, battle-hardened Marine surrounded by paint and paint brushes seems to contradict itself.

However, when service members return from deployment with traumatic brain injures, many go to a Bethesda facility that puts the "art" in state of the art.

One of them, Marine Capt. Jason Berner, was blown across a schoolyard by a rocket-propelled grenade. After suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and bouts with nightmares, he came to the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, but his initial impressions of art therapy were none too good.

Berner's opinion about the method being childish changed when he met Melissa Walker, the center's healing arts program coordinator and a lifelong art enthusiast.

"They'll say, 'I can't believe I'm about to say this...' and they'll share a memory they've never shared with anyone else before," Walker said.

Walker and NICoE use art therapy to help service members unlock the layers of complicated issued after a traumatic brain injury. Beyond the art, though, helping service members recover is a very personal thing.

Both of Walker's grandfathers and father were in the military. Her boyfriend is currently deployed. One of her grandfathers, Clyde, was injured and suffered from PTSD after serving in Korea.

"For the rest of his life, he had these memories, and I don't know if he felt like he could share them," she said. "Something we're working on with these service members is to feel like they can open up."

Walker is hoping to do for these service members what she would have done for her grandfather.

"I hope he's proud," she said.