It’s winter 2022, and Lt. Philip Richmann, USA (Ret.) has just sustained another concussion. He was in a car accident over the weekend resulting in yet another injury to his head. During his time serving in Afghanistan as an ICU nurse for the U.S. Marine Corps, Lt. Richmann sustained a number of head injuries which resulted in a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress. Unlike those other injuries though, the first thing he did after sustaining this latest injury was to pull out his paints and start painting.
“I know now that painting was the biggest tool that I had for recovery. Not just emotional recovery, but the physical, mechanical, the part that’s biological,” he explains. That reflexive response to painting after this experience came from his time in art therapy at the Intrepid Spirit Center at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
“Art therapy stands alone as the single best therapy by massive margins of anything that I’ve been in,” he says definitively. That sentiment is a distinct 180 degree turn from his initial thoughts about the treatment when it was first suggested to him. In fact still remembers his reaction to the suggestion, “You have got to be kidding me. Arts and crafts?! You’re going to put me in arts and crafts?!” He’d been cycling through some of the many treatments at the Intrepid Spirit Center and nothing was having a significant impact on his condition. In fact, things were getting worse. Then the neurologist suggested art therapy and believed he would benefit from the treatment. Despite his initial reaction, Lt. Richmann agreed and set up an appointment with the art therapist.
“I was really, really struggling,” he says. Symptoms he’d been experiencing including tremors, continuity issues, and general confusion were all getting worse. Those symptoms were a culmination of constant blast pressure exposure, and a training injury both sustained during his two deployments to Afghanistan.
Lt. Richmann’s call to service, “at the risk of sounding cliche,” he recalls, came on September 11, 2001. He remembers a feeling of helplessness that overtook him as he became aware of the attacks on the United States. He had a desire to be protective over the people of his country. It settled in his mind and he didn’t forget about it. When his experience as an ICU nurse caused recruiters to approach him years later, he remembered those feelings and was receptive to the idea of serving his country.
While he was willing and ready to serve, there was some pushback at home. When he first joined the Navy, “my wife was completely on board with it and my mother was terrified,” he says. When he volunteered to go to Afghanistan, his mother was furious, he remembers with a laugh “Why are you volunteering? Let somebody else go!” she told him. “I am the somebody else,” he replied. “That’s what I volunteered to do.” When he volunteered for the final deployment, the question he faced at home was “You did your time, you did your tour. Why are you going back?” “Well, somebody’s gotta go,” he responded. “It needs to be me,” he remembers feeling.
During his first deployment in 2013, he was sent to the most active region in Afghanistan: Kandahar. A number of factors caused him to endure constant blast exposure in addition to IED exposure, more than anyone without proper protective equipment should experience. Between deployments he spent time as a division officer in Portsmith, VA, and then as part of the Second Medical Battalion at Camp Lejeune, NC.
“I was always really good at handling people,” he remembers of his demeanor prior to being deployed. He was especially good at remaining calm “when things go to crap.” After he returned home for the first time, friends and family noticed a slight change. His fuse was slightly shorter.
He was deployed to Afghanistan again in 2018, this time to Camp Leatherneck in the country’s Helmand province. During training exercises, he was hit by a pugil stick. “It wasn’t that hard of a hit,” he remembers, but he was seeing stars, and felt light-headed in the days that followed. It would turn out to be the breaking point for his already-injured brain.
When he returned home from his second deployment, things changed. His wife said he was like a completely different person. He was exhibiting symptoms of a TBI experiencing speech and language issues. He couldn’t remember basic words, like “cup” or “bottle.” He was having false memories. He’d remember completing small tasks like shutting off the lights or closing the garage door, but he hadn’t done those things. He left his truck running. He was also getting confused and lost. He’d get a phone call looking for him when he wouldn’t show up, whether it be work or picking up his kids. He’d know where he was when he got the call, but wouldn’t know why he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. His medical training came in handy during these difficult times though. He would write these events down when they happened, keeping a record of the events and even asking those around him for the details he might not remember.
While this was happening he began going through a series of tests. An MRI exposed the severity of his condition and he was diagnosed with a severe TBI. He couldn’t make sense of how he was in such a condition from one hit from a pugil stick. What he wasn’t factoring in, doctors explained, was the constant blast exposure he endured during his first deployment. That exposure weakened his brain over time, leaving him vulnerable for a more significant injury from a smaller event like being hit with the pugil stick.
Lt. Richmann was removed from active service while they continued to test and evaluate his condition. Testing also revealed that his pituitary gland, which is located at the base of the brain, was injured. His hormone and testosterone levels were trending down, and his adrenal response was 0.00. These results were considered life-threatening, and led to him being deemed unfit for service. “That was the day my heart broke,” he says.
Things took a slow, but notable turn downward from there as new symptoms emerged. He began experiencing tremors and absence seizures, while depression took hold. “It was a really difficult time for me,” he says. This went on for around seven months.
“There was a particular day,” he remembers with a deep breath, “where I didn’t know what I was gonna do,” but things got very dark. “I took my pistol and I went out to the woods… and I didn’t know if I was coming back or not,” he exhales, as his voice nearly breaks. He was questioning his faith and his purpose, but somehow, something told him to unload the gun in the woods, and he went back in the house. He immediately called a good friend from the Navy, and made an agreement with his friend. If either Lt. Richmann or his wife called and asked, his friend would come over and take all of his guns out of the house. “I won’t fight you,” he told his friend, “so please, be there.”
It was right around this time that he started at the Intrepid Spirit Center at Camp Lejeune, NC. When he found his way to the art therapy program, he wasn’t exactly optimistic. His first impression of the art therapist didn’t reassure him, either. “Oh no, another artsy fartsy art teacher,” was his first thought upon seeing the art therapist and her vibrant pink hair. Then their interview seemed a bit odd to him. From his perspective, it had nothing to do with art. It didn’t even directly have to do with his symptoms. It was more of “what difficulties I was having… not even my injuries.”
He still remembers the reactions after he finished his first painting, which was of a sunset. “Everybody was like ‘Wow! That’s really good!’” After finishing a few more canvases, patients and staff alike were regularly stopping by to see what he was working on. He gained a bit of a reputation around the center, endearingly being referred to as “Bob Ross,” the iconic host of The Joy of Painting. There were even offers to buy prints of some of the pieces he created while he was there.
“It’s different for everybody,” he says. While many of his peers were painting darker scenes and images, typically a manifestation of their anger, Lt. Richmann was trying to cope with the losses of his brain and physical functions. “I wanted to be calm and peaceful, I wanted to be a serene sunset.” “Other people might need to paint skulls,” he explains, “(but) I needed to paint clouds.”
While being treated, Lt. Richmann learned that an art therapist isn’t just looking at what a patient is creating; They’re observing every facet of what’s happening off the canvas, too. He remembers the art therapist noting his breathing as an indicator for where he mentally was on a specific day. “You’re painting loud, what happened today?” she asked him on another occasion. It was a day that he’d gotten test results back.
“Something happens in art therapy” he says, “it was the most powerful therapy, and it was the most important therapy.” He noticed how after some time, it began to help his symptoms. His speech improved to the point where it’s impossible to identify that he ever experienced any speech issues.
Art therapy makes space for the service members to talk to each other in class, formally or informally. During those conversations other service members, he was almost surprised to hear that nearly everyone else expressed that they has also been suicidal, depressed, or struggling in some other significant way. Art therapy changed that for them.
“It gave them something new to focus on, and it gave them some hope back. That there was, other things they could do in life,” he says. For Lt. Richmann, faith plays a major role in his life. During those darkest days, his faith was wavering. Now he looks at things a little bit differently. Instead of focusing on what he’s lost, he chooses to focus on what he has, and views that as a gift from God. “Art therapy stands alone as the single best therapy of anything I’ve been in,” he attests. Now medically retired from service, Lt. Richmann continues to paint today.
Posted on March 14 2022 in Blog