Not that many years ago, Fort Bliss soldiers wanting to take their minds off all things military, their injuries or missing their family had a place to go to learn to paint, make jewelry or just work on their car.
Then came years of war in the Middle East and deployments that pulled troops away, leaving fewer soldiers on the post – and sharply reducing the demand for and availability of activities that are valuable for reasons that aren’t always apparent.
“There was a photography shop, an art shop, a ceramic building, lapidary and jewelry workshop – all those things were there for soldiers to use,” retired Army Lt. Col. Robbins told El Paso Inc.
“But they had all gone away because soldiers using them would come back and get deployed, come back and get deployed.”
Without soldiers to use the program, people were reassigned, equipment was appropriated and the work spaces were taken over or left vacant.
The highers up at Fort Bliss decided to bring all that back through the Resiliency Through Art program, but operational expenses will fall largely on community and fundraising efforts.
“One of our problems in raising money is that a lot of people think since it’s on Fort Bliss, the Army is paying for everything,” said Robbins, who got things started again in 2014. “No taxpayer money is allowed to be used for those facilities.”
“We have a partnership arrangement to do the art workshops,” Robbins added. “We provide all of the artists and then we help purchase materials, capital equipment when they don’t have funds to do it.”
Facilities support also comes from the Army’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation program, which oversees major activities, including the operation of Army post exchanges, commissaries, golf courses and other recreation activities.
On Nov. 9, El Paso’s International Museum of Art put on a show of the soldiers’ work and held a sale of more than 60 tile paintings by known El Paso artists who donated the proceeds to the Soldiers Art Workshop, a nonprofit.
Robbins, his artist wife Krystyna, and a small group of volunteer El Paso artists are putting things back together, giving their time, talent and sometimes their money into working with wounded soldiers and others needing a diversion, including children of Army parents and veterans.
Robbins, who retired and spent the next 25 years running Technical Solutions, a military contractor in El Paso that built robots for the Army, heads the nonprofit Soldier Art Workshops, which handles donations and money raised.
The ever-expanding workshop is at 820 Marshal, just across from Fort Bliss’ mammoth Warrior Transition Battalion building, capable of housing 1,100 soldiers recovering from injuries or trauma.
The number of soldiers housed there was in the hundreds at the peak of fighting in the Middle East and is down to about 100 now, said Capt. Amanda Tooke, commander of the battalion’s A Company.
“We’re here to heal soldiers, some of whom had physical injuries or are dealing with PTSD, behavioral health issues, sexual assault trauma or trauma, in general,” she said. “They will transition back to the Army or to civilian life.
“The art therapy helps them focus on something else. It’s a lifeline, moving them from isolation. I was raised in the arts, so I’m always over there. It’s a great tool for this post.”
Given the growing numbers of suicides in the military ranks today and among veterans, the services at the Soldiers Art Workshop are more important than ever and available to any current or former service member, she said.
There is a small fee for anyone who is not on active duty or a dependent.
Tooke said her advice to new arrivals is this: “If you do nothing else here at Fort Bliss, walk across that street. You’ll find something that will touch you and pull you out.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.