America cannot understand its Post-9/11 wars in their entirety without hearing the voices of the women and non-binary Veterans who served.

During the Iraq War from 2003-2011, for example, 300,000 of the more than one million U.S. troops who served were women. Over 160 military women have been killed and more than 1,000 have been wounded while fighting America’s Post-9/11 wars.¹

As women’s roles in combat expand, so do their sacrifices, often manifesting in difficulties when they leave the service. According to a recent survey 62% of women Veterans describe the transition as difficult.²

Anne Barlieb, a retired Army Major, knows first-hand the challenges that come with being a woman and a Veteran. During over a decade of service, she deployed once to Iraq as a helicopter pilot and a second time to Qatar where she supported operations in Iraq as a psychological operations officer.

Anne Barlieb
Anne Barlieb

“As a woman Veteran, I’ve faced an overwhelming and all-consuming sense of grief that feels complex, complicated, and controversial,” Barlieb said. “Military service demands a great deal of self-denial, deprivation, and distortion that I’ve found necessary to recognize and impossible to come to terms with in isolation.”

Non-binary Americans are nearly twice as likely to serve in the armed forces as the general population, according to a recent study by Oxford Academic.

Alleria Stanley, who retired from the Army after twenty years of service as a radiology technician, participated in the pilot program of More Than One Story in 2022. She credits the program with building a sisterhood that improves the quality of life for all involved…

Alleria Stanley
Alleria Stanley

“This program provides a safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment for us to come together and share our stories,” Stanley said. “What [Community Building Art Works] does is beyond remarkable… Seema and her teams save lives.”

Community Building Art Works (CBAW) helps Veterans like Barlieb and Stanley overcome these complicated feelings by addressing isolation. Founded in 2010 as part of an arts program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, CBAW uses workshops led by professional artists to create spaces where Veterans can share their stories of service and connect with others through the creative arts.

“When you’ve experienced things that are out of the ‘norm’, it’s easy to feel totally isolated. Our programs give people the tools and space to talk about these things, first with people who feel the same way and then to people in their communities who are very different from them,” explains founder and CEO, Seema Reza.

Seema Reza
Seema Reza

Most recently the Department of Veterans Affairs awarded CBAW a grant from the prestigious SSG Parker Fox Suicide Prevention Grant Program to host a monthly online writing and creative arts workshop. “More Than One Story” is the only program of its kind funded by the VA and specifically tailored to help women and non-binary individuals. Citing issues such as loneliness, social isolation, loss of identity and purpose,and the inability to relate to civilians, those who have participated in similar programs hosted by CBAW say this program is life changing.

Martha Pedersen
Martha Pedersen

Navy Veteran Martha Pedersen credits CBAW programming with helping her feel less alone.

Pedersen says the best part of participating in More Than One Story so far has been “meeting other women Veterans and learning that parts of their stories are part of mine.”

“I’ve written about things I hadn’t [talked about] before, and I feel more comfortable with the idea of writing more about my service – particularly the isolation and loneliness that I didn’t identify until I got out,” she adds.

CBAW’s innovative methodology and programs have been tested and refined over twelve years and have been demonstrated to be an effective creative arts intervention for those struggling with the symptoms of PTSD to include substance misuse and suicidal behaviors.

“Bringing people together and facilitating connection through creative expression and storytelling improves mood and sense of belonging—people connect virtually in these programs and then become real-life support systems,” said Reza.

A major part of CBAW’s approach is selecting artists who reflect the community of Veterans they serve. Valerie Acosta, a professional artist who oversees More Than One Story as a program coordinator for CBAW, is herself a Veteran. She retired from the United States Air Force after a 20-year career as a Russian Linguist.

Acosta says that making herself vulnerable with other Veterans has been a big part of her own healing journey. “Helping people helps me,” she says, “If I share [my story] in the right setting, I can help a lot of people.”

Valerie Acosta
Valerie Acosta

Next More Than One Story Session Begins in May

Women and non-binary Veterans and service members interested in participating in this free, virtual community workshop series can find out more about More Than One Story here. To participate, attendance at one virtual orientation is required. Orientation sessions will be offered at 12 PM & 6 PM ET, on the Second Tuesday of each month through September, unless otherwise specified. To register for an orientation session, visit our Eventbrite page and register.


About Community Building Artworks

CBAW connects Veterans, healthcare providers & civilians through workshops led by professional artists who reflect the diversity of the population we serve. We believe that building community around the arts is vital to public health. Last year, CBAW served close to 7,000 Veterans, active duty military, military family members, caregivers, health care workers and civilians with life-giving, community arts programming. We’re on a mission in 2023 to give belonging to 10,000 people from the communities we serve.

Editor’s note- 06/30/2023 Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Anne Barlieb deployed to Iraq twice. The article now correctly states that Barlieb deployed once to Iraq as an aviator and once to Qatar as a psychological operations officer.