“I just got stupid. I did something stupid, and that’s when I realized I needed help,” said Army Veteran Joe Webster.
He got it at the Milwaukee VA, which helped him get sober, find transitional housing and a full-time job.
Four of Webster’s paintings now hang in building 7, where other veterans also go through recovery, as a small token of his thanks.
Each painting has a Native-American theme, a nod to Webster’s Oneida heritage, along with a recovery message. They were unveiled April 4 in a special ceremony that included staff, family and friends, including fellow tribe members from the Oneida Nation.
The steps he painted about are some of the same ones Webster took to get sober after years of drinking.
He hit his lowest point around December 2010.
“I was drinking, and woke up in the bushes outside my daughter’s house,” he said with a grimace. “My granddaughter came outside to go to school and said, ‘Grandpa, are you OK?’ She told her mom she wanted to stay home to take care of Grandpa. That finally gave me my reason to get better.”
His daughters brought him to the VA.
Fifteen months later, Webster is full of life and appreciation for the second chance.
“I first came to the VA in the 1980s and wasn’t impressed. They didn’t seem to care back then, so when I came this time, I had a little bit of an attitude, but I knew I needed to get help. They were amazing. I can’t say enough about the VA,” he said. “Some people say, ‘The VA sucks,’ or it didn’t help them. No, you have to be willing to help yourself. You have to be willing to take the steps and do the work, and I hope this inspires others to get help.”
Soon after he entered treatment, Webster rediscovered his love of drawing, something he first started in Vietnam.
“Back then I used to do sketches, but eventually just threw that stuff away. I didn’t want anything to do with it.”
As he went through therapy, he created 10 smaller lithographs that now hang in the main hospital outside the Mental Health Clinic. Each of those also contains a recovery message.
“They were important to me, but then I’d see people stop and write down the sayings on each one,” he said. “That’s when I realized it might help others.”
He began work on the larger paintings in October 2011, and recently finished the work. They’re part of some 45 paintings he’s created since coming to the VA. Many are significant for other areas of Webster’s life they represent.
“If you look, most of them have eight feathers. That’s for my three children and my five grandchildren,” he said. “There are also two pines because my mother and father are buried here (on the VA grounds) underneath two pines. I felt a special spirit come over me as I painted these.”
Oneida tribe members said they were honored to be part of the ceremony.
“We’re so glad to be here and be a part of this,” said Kerry Metoxen, the tribal veteran service officer. “I know Joe did some sketching in Vietnam, but I think coming to the VA helped him to rediscover that. It’s kind of cool to see this. I hope this helps other vets and makes them realize they can get help, too.”
Dr. Jacquline Bethany, who is part of Webster’s treatment team, said the paintings will hang for years to come and people will know Webster did them.
“With these paintings, and his enthusiasm, he has given us far more than we could ever give him,” she said. “He will never be forgotten here, and these paintings will help everyone else who comes through these doors.”
Ken Metoxen burned sage as part of a blessing, which Webster took around so others could waft the smoke over themselves. The smoke signifies a blessing and purification.
Webster was humbled that so many people were hand for the ceremony, and said the celebration represented the next step in his life.
“Thank you for inviting my tribe,” he told the VA employees. “When you honor one member of the Oneida Nation, you honor all members of the Oneida Nation. I hope I represent the tribe in a good way, and I will not let them down. I will not let any other veterans down.”
Celina Webster, one of his daughters, wrote on Facebook that she is grateful for the new opportunity she has with her dad.
“I am so proud of him and his success,” she wrote. “It’s amazing how so much can change and turn around for someone in one year. I know he greatly appreciates everything everyone has done to help him come this far, and my sisters and I do also.”
Webster has a full-time job as a maintenance worker, and hopes to move into a permanent home in the near future. For now, he enjoys that he can spend time with his family.
“That’s the best part of it,” he said. “The VA gave me my life back.”