Kirsten Vallinmaki, a military intelligence officer of almost 21 years, struggled to feel normal after she was stationed overseas and stateside. Like many other veterans, she felt isolated when she returned home, even when she was surrounded by people who loved her, including her two sons.

“Social isolation and loneliness is a very real thing. It’s something that’s often misunderstood and ignored,” said Vallinmaki, who uses her previous last name, Hesterberg, in the military.

It’s hard to express and process emotions, she said, and it’s even harder to understand if you haven’t been in the military. The only way for other people to begin to understand is through listening to the stories veterans have to tell, she said.

That’s the premise of “Veteran Reflection”, a Kansas City Art Institute exhibit that aims to give a voice to the loneliness and isolation many veterans feel. The exhibit tells the stories of 14 veterans – including Vallinmaki’s – through portraits done by Art Institute students and audio clips of the veterans in their own words.

Growing up in foster care, Vallinmaki said she didn’t have a constant and reliable form of support, other than the foster mum she met when she was a sophomore in high school and is still in her life. She turned to the Army as a way to get out of the system and found a place where she felt she belonged. But integrating back into regular life was challenging.

She said the best way for veterans to heal after coming home is through conversation and opening up about their raw emotions, which can sometimes be difficult. For her, she found havens in church and a therapy programme called The Battle Within.

Still serving in the Army Reserve, she said she risks her job each time she talks about her struggles with PTSD. But she still shares her story when she can. “If it helps one solider seek help to heal, then it’s worth it,” she said.

Seeing the portraits and hearing the interviews, Vallinmaki said, created a reality for the veterans’ stories. Many of the art students hadn’t spoken to veterans or people in the military before, Vallinmaki said. Students just listening to the veterans’ stories and meeting veterans made them more understanding of the issues of isolation, she said.

Arlan Engin, a recent Art Institute graduate, said she was worried she might overstep during her interviews. She just wanted to be helpful, which she said was a shared feeling among her fellow students.

Arlan Engin, 21, of Los Angeles, a recent graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, looks over two of the portraits she created of local veterans for the Veteran Reflection Exhibit.

“They’re just people,” she said. “It’s maybe something a lot of people forget, including us. We didn’t know what to expect.”

Engin told the stories of two veterans, Doc and Sean, through her portraits and audio interviews. Doc said he felt alone during his service and turned to alcohol to cope when he retired. “My dream of doing 20 years in the Navy just about took my life,” he shares in his audio clip.

Vallinmaki’s portrait depicts her surrounded by flowers and two hands reaching out to each other. Her eyes are closed and tears are falling down her cheek; that’s because she cried during her interview with the art student, she said.

Vallinmaki was drawn to sharing her story with the students because art has played a significant role in her own healing. She said she creates digital, abstract art to express her trauma. “Art is an amazing way not only for others to understand but for veterans to express themselves,” she said. “You can say things words can’t.”

Many veterans see the portraits, such as Vallinmaki’s with tears on her cheek, and get emotional because they feel understood, Newton said. “They’re looking at the portrait, feeling the same feelings she most likely was having, just by seeing it,” Newton said.

A soldier doesn’t begin to heal until they cry, Vallinmaki said. This exhibit is a first step towards that feeling for some. “I’m not healed,” she said. “I am healing.” – Tribune News Service/The Kansas City Star/Skyler Rossi

The Veteran Reflection exhibition, which is travelling to various cities in the US, will open Aug 18-30 at the Humana Guidance Center, 215 NE Englewood Road in Kansas City, Missouri.