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MilTree: Healing Military Veterans Through the Arts

By Ruth Nolan | KCET

September 17, 2012

Memorial Day 2012 MilTree music event at Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown | Photo: Tara Young.

The unforgettable memory of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 has passed once again, and commemoration ceremonies have once again played out across the country and world. One event, held on September 11-12, was recently sponsored in the small high desert town of Joshua Tree by MilTree, a new and quickly growing arts-based outreach organization based in the Morongo Basin, whose goal is to show a display of support for veterans of wars who live in the high desert area, some coming from nearby 29 Palms Marine Base, and others who have served in Vietnam and other wars.

"It is our hope that the arts can help bring our returning military veterans, many based at 29 Palms Marine Base, and other members of our high desert community together, and create a safe haven for the types of communication, understanding and healing for those among us who are suffering from the wounds of war in one way or another," says MilTree founder Cheryl Montelle, a dancer, writer, and arts event organizer from Los Angeles who is also a part-time desert resident who has hosted many arts and literature-based events in the Joshua Tree area for the past several years, including the annual Desert Stories show and the author's series at the Red Arrow Gallery.

"So far this year, we have hosted several events that have allowed us to facilitate a coming-together of our area's veterans, active-duty military, and civilians to heal the wounds of the soul through the types of communication created through the arts," says Montelle, who is working closely with Vietnam War veteran and high desert resident Dale Fredenberg in her efforts. MilTree events have focused on storytelling, music, poetry, film screenings, and educational workshops, have included active duty and retired military members and poets, artists, rock climbers, retirees, and a diversity of others from the eclectic high desert community at large.

Memorial Day 2012 MilTree music event at Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown | Photo: Tara Young.

Montelle was inspired to create MilTree after reading the book "War On the Soul" by Ed Tick, a psychotherapist whose work focuses on the sources and treatment for PTSD that often affects those whose military service takes them to war zones, which he asserts is "a soul disorder, not a mental one." Tick is also an internationally-based lecturer, workshop leader and co-founder of "Soldier's Heart", an organization that works with veterans. Through "Soldier's Heart," Tick has led Vietnam war veterans from the U.S. on visits to Vietnam to meet with war veterans from that country as a way to help heal the wounds of war.

The Sept. 11-12 MilTree event in Joshua Tree drew together artists, musicians, poets, other community members, war veterans and members of the military and their families, and included a screening of Olivier Morel's film "On the Bridge", which examines the effects of war on soldiers who have served in the past decade's wars in the Middle East, such as PTSD and the difficulties of re-adjustment to civilian life. MilTree also offered two free workshops, "The Soul of Community in Healing from the War," and "Women Witnessing the War," both focusing on how community members and others who are connected to military service-members - families, wives, and friends - can learn to understand the effect of war on their loved ones, on their own lives, and how to create help build bridges of healing and communication.

Memorial Day 2012 MilTree music event at Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown | Photo: Tara Young.

Memorial Day 2012 MilTree music event at Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown | Photo: Tara Young.

Memorial Day 2012 MilTree music event at Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown | Photo: Tara Young.

The first MilTree event was a standing-room-only open microphone of storytelling and music hosted by Ted Quinn at Pappy and Harriet's Saloon in Pioneertown this past Memorial Day, where military members and veterans shared their stories with the audience through music and song. Montelle also hosted a reading for Tick from "War On the Soul" at the Red Arrow Gallery this past spring. MilTree also helped promote a program this past summer coordinated by the Homestead Valley Community Center that included volunteers from Yucca Valley and participating Starbucks in the high desert and neighboring Coachella Valley to donate and send packages of coffee and other items to troops currently serving in Afghanistan.

More interactive music, arts, film, and other activities and programs are being planned for upcoming months. Montelle envisions workshops for poetry and art, for example, where participants go into nearby Joshua Tree National Park to draw artistic healing and inspiration from the scenic beauty and power of the desert setting. In a related event that also touches on the theme of the effects of war on human lives, Montelle is also promoting, apart from her work with MilTree and along with Donnie I. Betts, the performance of a one-act play, "Mekong Joe" at the Blak Box Theater in Joshua Tree on Sept 21-22. The production will also feature a discussion with Amerasian actor Joseph Tran Thanh Hai Wandell who was a child of that war and whose life is the focus of the film.

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