– Cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among veterans continue to rise in the U.S. With thousands more being deployed to the Middle East, health officials fear they will not see a decrease in those numbers.

But with more awareness comes more therapy options, and a growing number of veterans are finding healing in the arts.

Retired Marine Sgt. Chris Stowe has been deployed six times for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was on the bomb squad for 16 years.

“I got blown up a couple of times, ended up getting diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. Both my eardrums were blown out in 2006,” Sgt. Stowe said.

After the physical damage came the mental.

“I ended up developing a lot of anxiety, depression, and anger. A pencil would roll off a table and I’d yell at it,” Sgt. Stowe recalled.

He found solace in the arts. To help cope with his PTSD, he turned to painting. He also took up writing and played the ukulele.  However, he found the best therapy came at 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Glassblowing became his passion.

“You’re not thinking about things from before or [about] the future,” he said. “Not depressed, just thinking about that piece of glass.”

Stowe thinks other veterans can benefit too, so he founded Operation Zen at Zen Glass Studio in St. Petersburg. It’s a free program aimed at helping service members and veterans express themselves in an artistic way.

Studio owner David Walker says pairing veterans with glassblowing is a perfect match.

“It’s amazing to watch people that are going through things we can’t even imagine. In their normal life they don’t even want to leave their house and then they come here and just forget about all of it and you just get lost for hours in this medium,” Walker said.

Stowe says glassblowing requires a mindset familiar to military personnel.

“It’s probably one of the most visceral and physical of the arts I’ve come in contact with. You get an intimate sense of teamwork, which is something a lot of people miss when they leave the military,” he said.

Chris hopes veterans find healing in the heat through Operation Zen.

“They need to understand your service isn’t defined by your injury. Your life carries on after. There is a lot more things I have to offer outside of being a Marine,” he said.

Operation Zen meets every Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Zen Glass Studio at 600 27th St S, St. Petersburg.

The Veterans Art Center Tampa Bay funds the program.

This Friday, Zen Glass Studio is hosting a fundraiser benefiting the Armed Forces Families Foundation. Attendees will learn how to blow glass and keep their creations.

Free beer will also be provided by Sea Dog Brewing. The cost is $50.


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