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Veterans use music, art, yoga, comedy to fight stress

Brian Cutaia, right, leads a Project9line comedy workshop

Brian Cutaia, right, leads a Project9line comedy workshop for veterans in Amityville. Credit: Jonah Markowitz

In 2001, a $150-million ad campaign urged young men and women to be “An Army of One.” The nation’s largest military branch wanted to attract prime recruits like Patrick Donohue and others aged 18-24 — yet it was a voice lost to time but not memory that talked the Islip resident into enlisting.

In 2008, Donohue visited his grandfather’s grave site on the third anniversary of his death.

“He said to me, ‘Go help the boys,’ ” Donohue, 34, recalled recently. “He meant help boys and girls, but in his day it was mostly boys. That was on a Friday. I came home and asked my wife if it was OK, and I never went back to work. On Monday, I signed up. I was 27.”

It wasn’t that his civilian life needed improvement. Donohue was happy and successful — he operated a landscaping business, sold it to become a stockbroker and was raising two daughters with his wife, Colleen. But he was restless and had long thought about joining the Army, like his father had done. He enlisted, served in Afghanistan and left the service after four years.

His war zone deployment would years later inspire Donohue to be “An Army of One” for himself and other soldiers battling post-traumatic stress disorder, prompting him to create the Amityville-based nonprofit Project9line. The group uses yoga, martial arts, comedy and the arts to help veterans heal and transition into the civilian world, and also offers opportunities for them to become entrepreneurs.

Difficulty readjusting

Donohue was sent to Afghanistan in 2010 with the STRIKE Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The unit helped force the Taliban out of Kandahar province in a bloody battle. Donohue was the colonel’s assistant, acting as his bodyguard and also fetching coffee, he said. Watching his superior up close taught him a lot about success and building a mission, Donohue said, which helped him craft Project9line’s business plan. He was eager to leave the military, he said, but when he returned to the States he had remorse and survivor’s guilt.

“I was very fortunate that I did come home,” Donohue said. “And I didn’t always see it that way.”

Life after the Army proved more difficult than he thought. Donohue became withdrawn and was sometimes too anxious to leave his home. He was hypervigilant — or constantly tense and on guard — and started self-medicating to try to deal with his symptoms.

At the wake of his cousin John Barbato, 27, who served in the Army and died at the Northport VA Medical Center in 2012, the commander of Barbato’s troop told Donohue’s father to have his son call him. Two days later, Donohue went to the same hospital for treatment, for seven months in two separate stays, and was diagnosed with PTSD, a common and debilitating mental condition often affecting combat veterans.

Donohue found that writing a poem gave him a sense of relief, and purpose, and realized that if it helped him heal, then it could do the same for other veterans. The experience inspired him to start Project9line, whose name refers to a military term used to get aid to those injured in combat.

Donohue wrote up a business plan for the nonprofit and showed it first to his mother, Marianne Donohue, who agreed to help the cause financially, and certainly helped him emotionally, he said. Donohue also raised money by selling chocolate heart-shaped lollipops and chocolate-covered pretzels at local fairs to jump-start his plan.

At Project9line, veterans can learn to tell a joke in a comedy workshop, write songs, play guitar, take classes in reiki, and participate in yoga and martial arts.

“It takes you out of the day-to-day stuff and brings you new focus,” Donohue said about using art to help heal veterans. “Which is how you get up another day to fight when everything inside you is telling you not to. It’s peer-to-peer . . . The friendships, the bonds being made. They’re happening naturally through shared experiences.”

At the nonprofit’s 10-week Comedy Assault workshop, Brian Cutaia, 27, of Islip Terrace, and other comedians on the circuit work with veterans on their stand-up routines. Sessions are held Tuesday nights at Project9line’s office in Amityville. Cutaia helps veterans perfect their timing, physical presence (after saying hello to the audience, put the microphone stand behind you, he tells one) and works with them to edit their jokes for more punch.

After last year’s sessions, the veterans held a fundraiser at a Sayville VFW that was attended by more than 200 people, Donohue said. Many of those participants are now paid performers at local comedy shows, he added.

Andrew Barrett, 27, of Commack, who was an Army medic in Kuwait and Qatar, now works in home remodeling. He said that when he left the service in 2014 he didn’t want to leave the house much. He views comedy as cathartic and therapeutic, and has a special affinity for Project9line’s comedy classes.

“A lot of comedians, they feel like they are in competition with each other,” said Barrett, who was already doing comedy when he began the 10-week workshop.

“Here, they root for each other,” he said. “We have a common bond of the military.”

Brian James Fisher, 28, of Amityville, said PTSD made it hard for him to transition from military to civilian life.

“I wanted to get the closeness with other veterans,” said Fisher, who served for one year in Afghanistan during his four years in the Army. “It helps to know other people have been in my shoes. They get it.”

Fisher also takes guitar lessons, another popular class that allows veterans to express themselves artistically. Instructor Dennis O’Donnell, 58, of East Moriches, comes to Amityville weekly to give lessons.

“It’s beautiful to watch,” O’Donnell said. “Across the generations, they get together and do something creative. That’s what it’s all about.”

He has been so impressed with the sessions that he will start a songwriting class soon, hoping to expand the ways in which those with PTSD and other veterans can use music as a form of therapy.

For the past few years, Project9line has held VetStock, a musical festival featuring musicians who are all veterans.

Last year, there were four stages and 28 veterans performing in different genres of music, from hip-hop to acoustic to rock, Donohue said. The next one will be held in October. The venue has not yet been decided.

Healing hands

For Linda Hacker, 52, of Farmingville, the yoga and reiki classes she teaches are also a form of art in that they fuse mind and body connections, and show veterans with PTSD and other medical conditions how to live in the moment.

“It’s different than other therapies,” said Hacker, a certified yoga instructor who also teaches classes at the Northport VA Medical Center.

“The overall target is to lessen the stress of PTSD, like stress or insomnia, and learn how to reconnect to our bodies,” she said.

Hacker also teaches reiki, an ancient form of healing that involves the laying on of hands to move the body’s energies (or chakras). Through Project9line, she is teaching veterans reiki self-practice and Level I for practitioners. For those who stay with yoga for a year, she hopes to hold classes on instructing for that method as well. That is part of the nonprofit’s other mission, to help veterans become self-supporting.

“They can become gainfully employed by helping other veterans,” Hacker said.

Martial arts training is another big part of the organization’s mission to aid veterans by focusing on the mind-body connection. The mixed-martial arts classes, held every Monday at 7 p.m. at the Suffolk County Police Department’s defense tactics training room (at the Brentwood campus of Suffolk County Community College), have become popular. Veterans come dressed in their combat clothes to create an air of military combat, Donohue said.

Helping others

The Official Journal of the American College of Epidemiology 2014 reports that veterans who served during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have up to a 61 percent higher risk of suicide than the general population. The number is slightly higher for those who were not deployed but served in other ways, according to the report.

Donohue maintains his ties to the military beyond Project9line. He is in the Army Reserves, which he joined in 2014. He is also studying for his executive master’s degree in business administration at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue, and plays hockey for the school’s team.

He said he opened up about his own issues with PTSD so that others will seek the help they need. He and the other Project9line volunteers want to share what they can to bring veterans out of their homes and into a safe environment to learn a new skill or just be among friends.

“There’s a little bit of fear and embarrassment of sharing this, but it’s less and less so,” Donohue said. “Because I’m the messenger of it now, and it’s OK. Others can be helped by hearing it. So, I’m willing to be open about it to ‘help the boys,’ as my grandfather said.”

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