Refined in reno: the national veterans creative arts festival provides much more to vets than a place to showcase their talents.
"I grew up in a real musical family," Stang says. "I started [singing] in school, in musicals and choir."
Stang, a member of Paralyzed Veterans of America's (PVA) Minnesota Chapter, was one of about 125 veterans who went to Reno, Nev., last October for the annual National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.
The 51-year-old has been invited to showcase his skills at 18 festivals over the years--not always with a song. But a song is how it started 20 years ago, about a decade after he got a C-4 incomplete injury in the Marine Corps.
"After I got hurt, I went back to church and was singing in the choir," he remarks.
Then, by fluke or fate, he got a chance to expand his artistic horizons.
"I happened to come across [Elizabeth 'Liz' Mackey]," he offers. "She got me interested in the Creative Arts Festival."
That was in 1993. "Once you get there, you want to continue to go back year after year," Stang says.
A Select Few Mackey is director of the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.
She says Stang and the relative handful of other veterans invited to Reno for the last festival were among the artistic elite. Only about 3-4% of veterans who enter local creativearts competitions at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities go that distance.
This year, there were about 3,400 entrants from 119 VA facilities. That was a slight dip compared to the previous year. In 2012, about 3,725 veterans competed locally at 130 facilities. Mackey attributed part of the entry decline to a reduction in donated arts and crafts items to VA facilities.
Mackey says for unknown reasons submitted art, writings, stage acts and songs seemed a bit happier, more optimistic and bright in 2013 than in 2012. Perhaps it reflects a lifting national mood as the country slowly works its way out of the gloominess of the "Great Recession."
"To me, the show this year reflected a lighter theme," Mackey says. "After a while, people get a little tired of being down, and they look for something to rally them toward the future."
The festival got its start in 1981, which was the International Year of Disabled Persons.
VET ARTS, a visual arts competition, began in Richmond, Va., while in Waco, Texas, the National Music Competition for Veterans was launching.
In 1989, the two merged as the creative arts festival with four broad categories: art, music, dance and drama. Organizers added creative writing in 2005.
Competitors start at local VA facilities and move on to regional competitions. Those taking gold locally have shots at being invited to the annual national festival. There's no competition at the national festival, just a week of showcasing the amazing creative talents of many veterans.
But the competition to get there is quite intense, remarks Stang. He has also gone to the national festival for dance routines with his able-bodied wife, Margaret, and multimedia shows.
Dancing is a big part of the festival and some veterans find that practicing this art helps them as athletes, too.
A Dual Threat
Dwayne Scheuneman is a member of the Florida Gulf Coast PVA in Tampa, Fla.
The Navy veteran took up dance as a form of crosstraining for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) about 11 years ago. He's traveled to three of the national arts festivals but skipped competing last year to focus on the Games. He says dancing changed his life, and he's using it to change others'.
"I run a dance company," Scheuneman says. "I started that company in 2005."
That's REVolutions Dance. It has students with and without disabilities. Scheuneman says the dancing has been as inspiring to him as the NVWG, which took him by surprise. "I was just looking for something to do in the offseason," he says.
It's tough to dance without a good beat. But Larry Foster is the man who can provide it.
Foster lost his right leg shortly after getting out of the military in 1981. From 1997 to 2010, he trained every year for the NVWG, but never tried his hand at the arts festival until 2013.
"This is my first year," he says. "I'm so thrilled I got the gold medal and got invited."
Foster went to Reno to perform his drum solo, "Drum Beat." He works for the VA and helped start a therapeutic drum circle, Beats 4 Vets, at California facilities.
Foster has practiced the drums since fifth grade. The Marine Corps veteran's elementary school required all students to study music. He says all the boys wanted to play the snare drum, but only one would.
"(The music teacher) gave us a piece of music and said, 'All right, you have one week," he says. "Whoever can learn this and come back in a week, you'll get it."
Foster convinced his parents to spring for a music teacher that week and started drumming away. He got to play the snare for his school. "I joined the Marine Corps and put my drums in storage," Foster says. "When I got out, I had the accident and stopped drumming for a long time."
That was until 2000. Foster tried hand drumming. He was hooked again. His collection of drums just started growing. "For me, it just gave me back my life, my sense of self-worth," Foster says. "I drum every day when I get home from work. It relaxes me. I've got a lot of pain issues. It generates the body's natural pain relievers."
Room for Everyone
Helping veterans grow as people through their artistic abilities is something Mackey sees as part of a long road to the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.
Local competitions run from January to March. Following those events, national judging starts in April and winners are announced toward the end of May. A select number of the winners are given the chance to display their talent at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival at end of October.
If interested veterans' local VA facilities aren't sponsoring a regional event, Mackey says they can enter others' competitions. She adds there is always room for vets who want to show off their artistic abilities and take part in the local events.
"We always seem to find a way and never turn anyone down," Mackey says.
For more information, visit creativeartsfestival.va.gov.
Dwayne Scheuneman (also pictured above with Arnie Fishinger) took up dance as a form of crosstraining for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
Dwayne Scheuneman says dancing changed his life and started REVolutions Dance to help other people with disabilities.