James (Kimo) Williams

Founder, United States Veterans Art Program
Purpose Prize Fellow 2015

This Vietnam vet provides art and music therapy resources to V.A. facilities to help other veterans express themselves through art.

As a soldier in Vietnam, I would come in from the jungle and play guitar at the service club. This was my main way of coping. My “soldier band,” The Soul Coordinators, played throughout Vietnam, at remote firebases and in hospital wards. Through this, I realized the power of music not only for entertainment but also for soothing the stress of combat.

After the war, I was always asked about my experiences as a combat soldier in Vietnam, but could never find the right words to express my thoughts. So in 1986 I confronted the emotions from my time in Vietnam and began work on a symphony, Symphony for the Sons of Nam (unfinished). In 1994, my second symphony, Fanfare for Life, was commissioned by AT&T, and in 1997, Buffalo Soldiers was commissioned by the West Point Academy.

In 1998, I returned to Vietnam, hoping to complete my unfinished symphony, but instead, I discovered truths about myself that I had long avoided. I knew I could not be the only veteran to experience these feelings, so I created a nonprofit to develop collaborative arts projects with Vietnamese and American artists.

By 2008, that work evolved, as had our mission. We were renamed the United States Veterans Art Program (USVAP); our mission is to provide art resources (musical instruments, photography equipment, painting, graphics and ceramics supplies) to state and federal veterans’€™ facilities, to be used by veterans, inpatient or outpatient, with the support of therapists. These tools not only provide resources that facilities might not be able to buy, but also bring public attention to the power of art and art therapy.


  • Since 2010, USVAP has worked with 45 state and federal veterans’ facilities in 20 states.
  • Art and music supplies have been distributed to more than 10,000 veterans.
  • USVAP resources help veterans foster the ability to make music and art for personal peace, self-expression, connection with others, and purpose.

According to the Military Times, the Department of Defense orders for anti-anxiety medications and sedatives like Valium and Ambien increased 170 percent from 2001 to 2009. By 2009, 1 in 6 active duty service members took psychiatric medication; 17 percent received antidepressants. And according to the VA’s PTSD program, as veterans return to civilian life, demand for pharmaceutical treatment will likely increase. Many professionals look to art therapy as an adjunct or alternative treatment.

Art therapy can be tailored to the individual patient. It can be used by family members to get around veterans’ communication barriers. It can build social and motor skills, increase coping mechanisms and reinforce memory and expressive ability. I have experienced this, and seen it happen, many times over.

Creative art activities are now recognized as an important component of healthcare. The Joint Commission, which accredits medical facilities, recently required that nursing-care facilities include “opportunities to participate in creative art expression” for patients being treated for memory loss.

As crucial as the Vietnam War was to my generation, it is more important for me, as the great-grandson of a slave, to contribute to humanity in my time here on this earth. Writing music is my second tour of duty, but helping veterans express and understand their experiences through art is my true calling.