Ten months of humping the mountains and jungles of Vietnam had drained my body and spirit, making me an old, tired Marine at the age of 18. Tail end of the Company, snaking through the elephant grass, we stopped. Sitting, listening, on remote, trained by men and by the jungle itself—that was pushed aside by the huge head of a TIGER! Useless weapon in my lap, pointing at him without my finger on the trigger. When I twitched it a little, the tiger yawned, exposing better weapons. More in awe than afraid, I could only look as his golden eyes took me in. Our boast of being “the baddest in the valley” echoed in my head. Stretching his neck and giving his head a twist, he made a “chuff” sound. “No contest” I whispered, “you own the damn valley.”
Without a sound, he moved on, trailing a mile of orange and black stripes. All teeth, claws, and majesty. After he was gone, I was different—lighter, renewed and in touch with my world and spirit. Alive! A gift from a predator king - but not to a warrior. Instead, a peaceful connection to the ‘child of wonder’ I thought lost forever.’ A pause in the middle of war—to appreciate true power, grace, and what? To receive understanding? Forgiveness? Or, a pass back to life? A voice behind me said, “C’mon, we’re moving out.” Getting up, returned to the war.
Robert Welby is a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran who served in Vietnam. Of coming home, he says, “I returned from Vietnam the weekend of Woodstock. I didn’t know where I belonged, everything had changed.”
Mr. Welby creates art to “focus my mind, to create order from the chaos.” His detailed artwork often reflects themes of his Vietnam experience, “Even when I do something seemingly unrelated to my military experience, Vietnam is always there, it’s always in the imagery; the art makes me remember things, both good and bad, about Vietnam, like the story of meeting up with tiger one day. In Art Therapy, slowly things started to happen in my art, and then in my life. Through the freedom and safety within the group, I was able to begin to express, understand, and integrate my inner experience. It has been a journey from chaos to structure; from structure to meaning; from meaning to rediscovery of my inner strength.”
The Giant Steps Program is an arts-driven outpatient mental health program for Veterans connected with VA Connecticut Healthcare. The mission of Giant Steps is to promote the wellness and recovery of Veterans by providing opportunities for creative expression, and connection with others so they can rediscover personal strengths, manage stress, build resilience, enhance self- empowerment and find meaning and pleasure in their lives.
Laura Spinelli, MA, ATR, LPC
Director, Giant Steps Program
VA Connecticut HCS