You may not know Barb Pierce but you probably know her artwork from True Patriot Love’s website: her evocative water colour of a sapling bending under the weight of fresh snow is our newest holiday ecard selection.

For Pierce, the image of a sapling in snow speaks to hope, of bending but not breaking. The painting also speaks to the power of creative arts to help in the healing process, something she knows well as a Veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces who is currently completing study to become a registered Art Therapist.

Pierce served for 13 years – four years as a cadet at Royal Roads Military College and Royal Military College, earning a BEng, and nine years as a Military Engineer Officer in Canada and Somalia.

“I joined the military when I was 17 years old. It was my life until I was 30,” she says.

After leaving the Forces Pierce was a project manager for several companies, from working in telecommunications and coordinating staff teams on different continents to moving a historic building. She became a Professional Certified Coach and also studied and taught yoga. She had a strong portfolio of skills but was struggling in isolation with the after-effects of trauma from her time in service, as well as the additional stress from writing her impact statement for a class action lawsuit.

“I did not realize how much my military traumas were affecting my life,” she recalls. “My life had been getting smaller and smaller and my anxiety and other symptoms had been increasing. I started taking various trainings in the hopes that it would help me to deal with my trauma symptoms. It did help, but it was not enough. I finally reached out to Veterans Affairs Canada and was connected with an amazing therapist. It was really hard to make that first call, but I am so grateful for this as it has helped me a lot.”

She is now studying to become a Registered Psychotherapist and Registered Canadian Art Therapist so she can offer healing to Veterans who have also experienced trauma.

She spoke to True Patriot Love about the power of peer support, creative arts and building a new life after the military.

What are some of the misconceptions that people have about their life after service?

I think that many people think things will somehow be easier when they leave the Forces. Moving on is wonderful, and also really hard. My first job out of the military was in a high-tech startup – I don’t think it could have been any more different than being in the military where there’s clear hierarchy and clear rules and regulations. You have to understand subtleties more: you could have to negotiate with multiple people, it’s not one person delegating. One of my most unexpected challenges was learning how to communicate more effectively. This challenge is what led me to engage with a business coach, and eventually focus exclusively on coaching as a profession.

You’re currently studying art psychotherapy; what are some of the ways in which creative arts can help address mental health challenges?

Art therapy is an excellent modality for working through trauma and feelings without having to go back into the story.  You don’t need to be an artist to benefit from art therapy. I have devoted much time to artwork like pottery and painting over the past 20-plus years – it’s a great way to be present and mindful. In partnership with Carp Ridge EcoWellness Centre, I’m currently co-facilitating two art therapy groups and two water colour classes at the Women Warriors Healing Garden, which also has programs like donkey walking, beekeeping, and gardening. Their programs are helpful because you’re in a mindful environment without forcing yourself to be mindful: you have to move slowly around donkeys and bees!

What would you recommend to people preparing to leave the Forces?

There are many peer support groups, and I would highly recommend checking them out. Engaging with other female Veterans through the Women Warriors’ Healing Garden was more helpful than I could have imagined. For retirees my advice is to start planning a couple of years before you retire, and make sure you have hobbies and activities outside of the military. Military Family Resource Centres can also help with transition issues. It would be good to discuss your transition with your children; if that is difficult for you, then a transition workshop can give a better understanding of what might be coming.

I want to leave people with hope: there are resources, and just because you did one thing, doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it. There are a lot of people that want to help you; you just have to let them know you need help.

What are some of the strengths that Veterans and serving members can bring to the civilian workforce?

I believe that military people have great skills in dealing with curveballs and recovering quickly when things don’t go as planned. I also think that military people have excellent planning skills. If you are leaving the military, I assure you that you have valuable skills. You have an excellent work ethic. There are people and companies who will want you on their teams.

Thanks to your generous donations, True Patriot Love’s Creative Arts Fund is able to support programs like the Women Warriors’ Healing Garden and Veteran Artists Collective, as well as a range of programs at Military Family Resource Centres that provide help to Veterans, serving members and their families. Thank you!

Our gratitude to Chris Henneberry of Veteran Artists Collective for introducing us to Barb Pierce and her art!

You can send a holiday ecard featuring Barb Pierce’s artwork when you give the gift of True Patriot Love. Click here to start gifting!