After he returned from Afghanistan in 2009, life began to unravel for Marine Sergeant Joe Merritt. In 2010, his wife suddenly left and he instantly became a single parent of two, an infant and an autistic toddler. Merritt, whose post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had not been diagnosed at the time, said “I was so depressed and overwhelmed. Finally, after a year and a half, I went to behavioral health. I was really struggling with everything. My behavioral health counselor said I was obviously depressed. But I couldn’t even talk about my combat-related issues – only what was going on presently.” Merritt joined the USMC in 2006, after a close friend was killed in Ramadi, Iraq. He shipped out to boot camp the day after his friend’s funeral.
Merritt’s behavioral health counselor referred him to the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society’s Combat Casualty Assistance Visiting Nurse Program, where he met Society visiting nurse Ann Dalter. “Together, we battled through the military medical system for more than a year to get Sergeant Merritt’s PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) diagnosed,” Dalter recalled.
“Ann called me all the time to check in and see if I needed anything,” Merritt said. “She called to remind me of appointments and found services and resources to help with my kids. She helped me get registered with the USMC’s Exceptional Family Member Program.”
Once he entered outpatient treatment, Merritt’s mental health improved. He found catharsis in art therapy, participating in a program called Combat Paper (www.combatpaper.org), which helps veterans articulate their combat experience through art by literally turning their uniforms into paper. Once the cloth becomes pulp and is pressed into paper, veterans can do anything they want with it. “Everybody’s got a story about combat,” Merritt explained. “And those stories are hard to tell sometimes. Combat Paper gives you a medium. You’re taking something you’re so attached to and breaking it down and making it your own. When you’re deployed, you don’t always have a say in what you do. Once your uniform becomes paper, you can have a say. You can paint on it or just shred it and throw it away.”
Then, as his end of active service date approached, Merritt’s mental health began to deteriorate. “I started pulling away from everyone and was getting really depressed again,” he said. “What I had dealt with in combat hadn’t gone away, I’d just repressed it. On top of that, I had all the stress and anxiety of trying to gure out what I was going to do not being a Marine. I had a really big breakdown and attempted suicide.”
Dalter helped Merritt enter an inpatient treatment center. “Ann was my front person, especially while I was hospitalized. She helped tie everything together and made sure I got the help I needed. My kids stayed with my parents. Ann also stayed in contact with my parents and made sure the boys had everything they needed.”
“A big part of what’s helped me recover is getting involved in writing and art projects,” Merritt explained. Now, Merritt is painting, writing, and helping other veterans express themselves through art. In November, his work will be exhibited at his first solo gallery show at the Art League in Ocean City, Maryland. Merritt also painted a mural at the USO at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. “I use a lot of mixed media,” he said. “For a while I was painting on everything from skateboards to pots and pans. More recently, it’s acrylic on stretched canvas.”
His short stories and poems have been published in an anthology produced by Warrior Writer, a nonprofit created to bridge the gap between veterans and civilians. He’s found that the people he’s met through his art have been as important in helping him heal as the art itself.
“The community around veteran arts that I’ve built for myself is so important,” Merritt said. “After the suicide attempt I got sober and found so many people who are involved in the same things I am— community programs and art—and they are clean and sober and have been pivotal in my recovery.”
Becoming an artist has enabled Merritt to communicate in a way he never found possible before, both through his painting and with language. “My dad was in the military during Desert Storm, but he ended up going to Korea instead of Desert Storm,” Merritt said. “He had experience in the military, but not in combat. He always asked me if I wanted to talk about my deployment, but I could never bring myself to talk about my experience. Finally, he came to see my art at one of the galleries. It was easier for me to tell a story or paint a picture than to tell someone. But once it was out in the open we were able to have a full conversation.”
Merritt has also relied on Dalter and NMCRS Quantico Director Presha Merritt (no relation, although Presha often jokes with Joe that they are cousins) for honest conversation. “I really can’t say enough nice things about them. Ann and Presha have been hugely helpful getting me through these last couple of years. I talk to both of them on a regular basis.”
Life with his boys, while never simple, has gotten better. Merritt loves making art with them. “Some of what’s in the show we worked on together,” he said. “Their favorite thing is whatever’s messiest. They both enjoy painting a lot. Some of the stuff I’ve painted is when one of them got into the paint and I just worked over it and incorporated theirs into whatever I tried to do.”
“Joe has embraced art as his life’s work,” Dalter said. “He’s creating art and writing poetry, and he’s hoping to work with other veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland in their art therapy department after he is medically retired from the USMC. He’s received lots of support from the Society and he has a very supportive network, which has made all the difference. He still has lots of work to do, but we’re thrilled to see how well he’s doing.”