November 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

Twice a month, Troy Muller visits the Douglas County Correctional Center to run an art class for incarcerated veterans.

Tattoos are the theme of Muller’s first class in September. He lays out elaborate drawings of dragons, skulls, crosses, and tribal designs for the 20 or so participants. The assignment is for inmates to trace a design then add their own embellishments.

U.S. Army veteran and inmate Isaac Whitney plans on tracing a cross, drawing some dog tags over it, and adding “R.I.P. Sgt. Beste” engraved on a tag.

Bradley Beste was killed by an improvised explosive device in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006. Whitney says Beste and other sergeants helped show him the ropes when he first deployed to Iraq.

“I’d only been a soldier for five months, and now I’m in the worst place in Iraq,” Whitney recalls. “Those guys really understood.”

In Ramadi, Whitney says he was caught in a few IED explosions. A few people in his platoon were killed. When Whitney returned home in 2007 after his second tour, he knew something was wrong. He was angry. He didn’t want to go to sleep. And he constantly wanted to go back to Iraq.

“It just starts to wear on the mind. I started drinking pretty heavily. Then, when I got out of the Army, that’s when I turned to drugs, and I started to get into trouble,” Whitney says.

With his short hair and his fast-but-measured method of speaking (his father, Rory, is a pastor), you could mistake Whitney for a motivational speaker or a marketing associate. But he’s not. He’s in jail, awaiting trial. If convicted, he could face more than 20 years for repeated drug and burglary charges.

Military veterans and inmates at the Douglas County Correctional Center. New Century Art Guild classes are free to veterans in jail and in the community at large.

These art classes, taught through New Century Art Guild, help him cope with his post-traumatic stress disorder. Whitney says the nonprofit organization has opened his eyes to the arts and helped him sleep. It has also reacquainted him with other veterans.

“To do this with other veterans, first and foremost, it builds that bond again,” Whitney says.

Jim O’Keefe, president of New Century Art Guild, explains that many incarcerated veterans have stories similar to Whitney’s.

“They’re brittle. They shatter easily. They jump at noises. They’re like a stem on a wine glass. You squeeze it a little too hard, and all of a sudden, it breaks in your hand,” O’Keefe says.

The Douglas County Correctional Center classes are just part of the guild’s many community initiatives. Some of the program’s most acclaimed artists have experienced similar difficulty acclimating back to civilian life.

After coming back from a deployment in Iraq that included working at the detention facility Camp Bucca, artist and photographer Roberta “Bert” Leaverton struggled with the idea of going to the Veterans Affairs hospital for help with her PTSD.

“I still have two arms and two legs, but I’m jacked up here,” Leaverton says as she points to her temple.

It took choking a coworker in 2004 to change that.

She was in tight quarters (by a copy machine). A coworker walked past her unexpectedly. Papers went flying.

“I wasn’t even in the moment. I just remember putting my hands around his neck, and trying to take him down. And then I stood there, and I cried,” Leaverton says. “And he’s like ‘God, I know I’m ugly, but I didn’t think I was that ugly.’”

No charges were filed against Leaverton for the incident. Since then, Leaverton has been treated for PTSD. She’s also developed a panache for detailing miniature military figures and photographing them. Her work has been showcased in San Francisco as well as the Bemis Center in Omaha. In August, her work was displayed at the Mule Barn at Metropolitan Community College as part of an exhibit that featured artists from the New Century Art Guild.

The nonprofit’s mission is to train veterans in art as well as business. A vital aspect of the guild’s services is to help veterans cope with PTSD through art. This is done through classes, peer-to-peer training, and by visiting inmates who have served in the military.

A wall inside the Douglas County Correctional Center.

A naval commander who served in Vietnam, O’Keefe was a nuclear safety and security officer before retiring in 1994 to start up a few software companies. With his silverish hair, trim mustache, and an affinity for sailor talk, O’Keefe is a near ideal vision of how you’d picture a Navy admiral. In 2013, he decided to sit in on a class taught by Troy Muller, the guild’s art director.

“It was a particularly lame one,” O’Keefe says referring to the class, which included not only veterans but children and bored teenagers.

The group was a powder keg of tension. Muller set out about 60 drums. The first ones to jump in on the action were the little kids. Then the teenagers started to participate. Eventually, some of the veterans started to get in on the drumming.

“The shit level in that room just dropped right down to the floor,” O’Keefe says. “I looked around and said, ‘There is something to this.’”

The art classes offered by New Century Art Guild are free to veterans. The guild also hosts exhibitions and workshops. As a Better Business Bureau-accredited charity, the guild offers free business advice to veterans who are hoping to turn their art into a career.

Participants in the guild are divided into three levels. The first level are the hundreds of veterans who go to the art classes. The second level is the instructors who can teach or run workshops. Finally, the third level is a small group of professional-level artists.

Whether using art or other means, the need to address veterans’ mental health concerns has become a pressing social concern. A report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that in 2014, an average of 20 veterans die by suicide each day. About 65 percent of those committing suicide were above the age of 50.

“From the government’s point of view, if they treat you medically and send you off with all the right pills, they’ve done their job as far as they’re concerned. But what’s not taken care of is how they [veterans] fill their time and their sense of purpose,” O’Keefe says.

O’Keefe says he’s seen veterans rearrange their schedules to come to classes.

“We kind of think there’s enough juice in your head to do one of two things. You can do art, or you can kill yourself. But there’s not enough to do both,” O’Keefe says.

Back at their exhibition at Metro Community College, O’Keefe takes a moment to sit down on the floor, resting briefly. He then nonchalantly pulls out both of his hearing aids—a cost of being on a naval carrier for years. In late 2016, O’Keefe was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Despite the diagnosis, he still presides as president of the guild, and accepts no money for the position.

“I’m done with chemo. My graduation picture didn’t turn out so good,” O’Keefe says, before getting up to continue looking at the paintings produced by veterans his guild has helped.

Visit newcenturyartguild.org for more information about the New Century Art Guild.

This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.

An incarcerated veteran designs a fan.