Photography, art help veteran earn degree and cope with PTSD

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According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, anywhere between 11% and 20% of veterans returning from the most recent conflicts -- operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom -- are dealing with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Travis Pendergrass was one of those veterans with PTSD after returning home from serving in Iraq. He found an outlet through photography. 

“A VA counselor told me, ‘Hey you should pick up a camera,’” said Pendergrass. “And I kind of fell in love with it.”

Pendergrass is currently a photographer with USF, shooting most of the school’s sports teams. He is also a recent graduate of the School of Fine Arts. His senior thesis, an exhibit he called “Solider Stories,” helped him earn his bachelor's degree in fine arts.

Through photography and his own experiences, Pendergrass hopes to show the traumatic effects soldiers can face while they are fighting for our country. 

“I’m using realistic military action figures to recreate things I went through,” said Pendergrass. 

One piece, entitled “1335,” is a collection of dog tags representing the number of American service men and women killed in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. The tags are a lined up and placed in sand within a wooden box.

The exhibit also includes three hyper-realistic photos using military action figures. One is called “24 October, 2003.”  It depicts the moment one of his closest friends, Artemis D. Brassfield, was killed by a mortar round. Another photo reenacts a memorial held to remember Brassfield. The third, “28 May 2003,” reimagines the first time Pendergrass fired his weapon during combat.

“For me it was traumatic,” Pendergrass recalled. “Every time I would close my eyes I would see these children and I would see the green from the night-vision goggles. I think that kind of haunted me for years after Iraq.”

Creating the exhibit and sharing his artwork is helping Pendergrass work through those memories.

“It allowed me to go over and over in my head the events that happened,” Pendergrass continued. “The more you go over something, the less it has that effect on you. Even though these events still bother me, I still cry sometimes, I still stay up at night, the effect of them are lessening.”

Pendergrass will show his exhibit “Soldier Stories” on June 27 in the J.C. Cobb Room at Bay Pines VA Healthcare System from 1 to 4 p.m. 

LINK: Travis Pendergrass’s website