By Jennifer Harman

Besides being a wife and mother, there are two things that I am immensely passionate about: Performing Arts and Veterans.

I spent the first half of my life in the performing arts. At any given moment, you could find me performing on stage, teaching in the studio, studying to be a dance major, in rehearsals, touring with a company, or taking a class—until it became so overwhelming, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I quit everything, dropped out of college, and spent the next few years bouncing from job to job. Eventually, I decided to go back to school, and at someone else’s suggestion, I pursued a business major. A few years later—after I was bored with the mundane life I created for myself—I decided to shake things up a bit and enlisted in the Navy.

I spent the next ten years of service trying to fit my square peg in a round hole. I no longer knew who I was. I wasn’t satisfied. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t feel whole or fulfilled. As the years passed, I just got used to that feeling.

I tried to return to the performing arts world that I knew before—but that world no longer knew me. I was older, not as good as I once was, and I began to feel defeated. Nothing in my life was familiar—I had changed too much. The life I knew and the relationships I had before were just not the same.

The day I heard about auditions for a veteran performance project, I knew I had to be involved. I didn’t really care if I was selected to perform or just be the prop girl for the show—one way or another, I had to be a part of this. At 41 years old, I went to the dance audition at USF—held in the same studio spaces where I was a dance major two decades before. A deluge of memories flooded my thoughts and the voice of self-doubt started to whisper. I ignored it. This was my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I was not going to allow my own insecurities to hold me back.

I thought I might die during the audition. I was out of breath and I could feel my pulse racing in my cheeks. I had to step outside for a moment. One of the instructors followed. She first asked how I was feeling. My response had less to do with my physical state than with the emotional turbulence happening inside me. I felt so out of place. I was easily the oldest one in the room—until she corrected me and shared that she was more than a decade older than me, that she too was struggling, and that if nothing else, we marched ourselves back in there and showed those kids what we’ve got.

When the audition was over, I was invited to perform in the project.

That very moment changed the whole trajectory of where my life was going. Suddenly, I felt like I had a say in my own happiness and success. To be able to combine my identity as a veteran with my identity as an artist and performer has been my Holy Grail and culmination of my entire life’s work.

It has been a truly humbling and life-changing experience to be given the honor of working with such incredible veterans, civilians, artists—humans. The bonds we’ve forged have been like nothing I’ve experienced before. We trust each other, protect each other, and honestly have so much love for each other. We are a family.

Until discovering VetArtSpan and participating in Diavolo’s The Veterans Project, I had not realized that I lost a piece of myself a long time ago. This experience, these people, have helped me rediscover the person I once was—before becoming a wife and mother, before the military, before any pain or trauma. It’s been a messy process, but I’m becoming reacquainted with what it feels like to be accepted for who I am, to feel valued and supported, to be heard or seen, to feel empowered, and to feel love and compassion in the most unexpected ways.

Despite the challenges—physically, mentally, and emotionally—I’ve tried to absorb everything I can from this experience. I’ve pushed my limits and faced some personal fears. My body is getting reconditioned, to where I no longer feel like I peaked at 17 years old, but where this may be my best year yet.

As veterans, we are learning to let outsiders in—to help them understand who we are as individuals, and not just a stereotype. Our civilian counterparts have taught me—us—how to be fluid and free, trusting and authentic. No longer do I feel like I need to hide who I am under my protective outer shell. I feel free to express my thoughts without judgment, and my feelings without guilt, or shame, or feeling weak.

I’ve been blessed to work with this incredible family who keeps me accountable and challenges me to keep pushing. Through this experience, I discovered new strength in allowing myself to be vulnerable, to be loved, and to fully submit to my heart and soul. As a result, I’ve decided to focus my attention on building a career around the expressive arts as a path to healing—because that’s exactly what the arts have helped me do: heal.