The Veteran’s Outreach Center and the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Washington, now host an alternative therapy program for combat veterans: LightBenders Institute of Photography. It’s the first of its kind in the United States. Founded by Chris Chaffee, a Vietnam Veteran and former Navy photographer, the program shows impressive psychological help for its participants.
Chris Chaffee did two tours of duty in Vietnam during the latter end of the war. But his fascination with cameras and darkrooms began when he was 12.
“Playing with cameras was like stepping into Disneyland for me. I’ve never wanted to put the camera down.”
Enlisting in the Navy at 17, Chaffee passed a proficiency test which guaranteed him training and placement as a Navy Photographer’s Mate. He attended Photographer’s Mate ‘A’ school in Pensacola, Florida and Photo Interpretation school at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado.
“There I was, not old enough to vote, but learning highly specialized things like photogrammetry* utilizing aerial photography.”
[*Photogrammetry is the science of making measurements from photographs, especially for recovering the exact positions of surface points.]
Upon completion of training, he began doing aerial reconnaissance photography with an A-6 Intruder bomber group, Attack Squadron 35 (the Black Panthers) aboard USS America, and later served in-country providing reconnaissance support to 1st Marines. His awards include the Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with one Bronze Star, and the National Defense Service Medal.
As for many, when he came home from Vietnam his reception was less than pleasant, and there were no therapies available for combat veterans. He worked for several years in numerous facets of photography and related technologies after attending extension education through Brooks Institute of Photography and University of California, both located in Santa Barbara, California.
Chaffee retired in 2014 after nearly 50 years in photography, but the never-ending lure of the camera and his passion to help other veterans pulled him in a new direction.
After 2 years of fundraising, research and consultation with behavioral health specialists at the Spokane VA Medical Center along with numerous Veterans, LightBenders was born. He says that he doesn’t feel as though he’s “working” again because passing on his knowledge to his students and their resulting therapeutic success brings him a great deal of satisfaction.
LightBenders – “Using the Power of Light to Pierce the Darkness”
With a clearly defined mission, the alternative therapy program is an 8 week course which is available only to combat veterans. The pre-course and post-course scoring on psychological tests for those who have completed the course has shown a marked improvement in veterans with severe post-traumatic stress and resulting depression.
Chaffee told us that this creative endeavor gets them looking and thinking forward instead of ruminating on their service years. It also helps the Veteran in their process of social reintegration. Doing this together with a group of fellow veterans – both in the field and in the classroom provides a sense of safety and confidence to the students.
Combat veterans are used to carrying weapons for their protection. Chaffee says that the “big, black, heavy Nikon” mimics that, and helps to rewire thought and response processes, effectively rewiring the mind into realizing that the camera they carry and operate is a creative, not a destructive device. This process of ‘neuroplasticity’, the brains ability to restructure thought processes, is notably improved with the therapy.
“The camera has a trigger – the shutter release. The veterans have to steady it, aim it just like the scope on a rifle. Only tripping the shutter on a camera is not destructive, it’s creative… Being a photographer as a whole affords them an opportunity to redefine themselves. They can become someone different than who they thought they would always be.”
Each applicant must go through a screening process conducted by a LightBenders Clinical Support Specialist to determine their suitability to the program before being selected for a student position. Final selection and approval occurs after a personal meeting with Chaffee, although the vast majority of applicants are accepted at that final stage.
During the course of the 8 weeks, students are issued professional capable Nikon DSLR cameras with 2 lenses and a complement of accessories which they have in their possession full time, since they are tasked with photographic challenges between each class. Chaffee will then peruse the collection of photos the students create and displays select images on a 65 inch flatscreen HD monitor in a dimmed classroom, sitting the veterans no more than 8 feet away which provides a powerful ”wow” factor due to the large image size and rich display color.
He then asks who took the picture, giving each student the pride of ownership of the photographic art they have created, which Chaffee then critiques in a positive and encouraging manner, engaging the whole class in further commentary.
“Combat veterans often think, ‘This is all I’m ever going to be, I can’t be anything else.’ In essence, they become somewhat paralyzed and restricted by their past trauma. We show them that there are things that feel good to the eye and good to the heart…they still have beauty in the heart, it never left them, and we prove that to them on screen. They can still experience the joys of their pre-trauma youth. We give them the tools to help them in their path of re-connecting to it.”
Students in class
The January outing to take pictures of the eagles at Higgins Point on Lake Coeur d’Alene in North Idaho
Students in the field at night – it’s all about the light, how to view it, how to capture it
Some of the photos taken by the students at Lightbenders are amazing. Here are just a few:
Dragonfly on a rose
City of Spokane lights
The beauty of a drop of water on a leaf
The tranquility of a Japanese garden (Manito Park in Spokane)
They’ve also captured action shots like this football game:
After students complete the initial 8 week course, they graduate into the LightBenders Alumni where they stay connected to the program, attending workshops and field trips which further advance their knowledge and ability as photographers, while still keeping the camaraderie of the unit. Graduates of the program can also cover local veterans events as a service to the Veteran community, and serve as a news source for the veterans. But they do not get a paycheck; their services are free.
Growth of the Alumni concerns Chaffee, as the Alumni body grows with each graduating class, and providing activities and further training for them comes with an ever-increasing price tag. No one on LightBenders staff, including Chaffee, receive any financial compensation. Chaffee also serves as Chief Instructor, one of the program’s 4 photography instructors.
He requires all his staff to be combat veterans.
“Only a combat veteran understands what is going on inside another combat veteran. We know that the public doesn’t understand it, but unless you are one, you’ll never be able to truly relate to what they have gone through, and the trauma it has caused. The program is not a camera club, it is an actual behavioral therapy.”
Chris has a dream that one day LightBenders would be available in VA facilities around the nation. He was once told that he should give up on his dream of LightBenders operating in the Spokane VA Medical Center or even Veteran’s Outreach Center. And yet…here he is and thriving in both locations.
LightBenders is a 501c3 non-profit corporation, and receives no funding from the VA, which provides only class facilities and limited clinical support staff.
He’d like more equipment to be able to help even more veterans, and he worries about the program’s growth without funding. His program is free for veterans, and it must remain that way, due to his 501c3 corporate status. He hopes someday to be able to take his students and alumni to places of stunning therapeutic beauty, like weekend treks to photograph autumn colors in Glacier National Park, or lighthouses on the Pacific coast and more. But it’s exceedingly expensive for hotels, food, and basic needs. These dreams are on hold until funding can make them possible.
In the world of dreams, he’s already found one by creating a successful therapy that truly helps veterans. We believe his dream will come true on all counts.
“Help others achieve their dreams, and you will achieve yours.” Les Brown
Would you like to help? Visit the Lightbenders Facebook page
, give it a “like” and check out the progressive work they do. There is also a link there where supporters can make a tax deductible donation to the LightBenders program and it’s growing efforts.
Featured photo: an eagle in flight. All photos submitted by LightBenders’ Director Chris Chaffee.