Steve Banko had a plan for his life: Graduate high school, get a scholarship to play basketball in college, get a degree, be successful.
In 1967, his plan was upended when he was selected for the draft. Six months later, he was sent to Vietnam. Steve served for almost the entirety of 1968 and was shot four times on Dec. 3.
“There were 86-percent casualties in our unit that day,” Steve said. “Our whole rifle company was eliminated.”
Steve was then sent to Japan to recover, and eventually he went back to the States. At home, he started to plan out his future. Steve was married on Sept. 20, 1969.
Just 11 days after his wedding, he was back in Vietnam; another plan thwarted. There, he was wounded again, and finally discharged at the end of January 1970.
“When I came home, I was going to school, working, and trying to adapt to being a husband and father,” Steve said. “And to be perfectly honest, I was not doing any of it very well.”
Steve self-medicated with alcohol for 12 years to try to get past the lasting pain from his time in Vietnam. It was his wife who ultimately got him to seek help. In 1982, Steve went to a rehab facility, where he was able to get clean and recenter his life. He’s been sober since.
But the true tests of sobriety came a few months after he had finished his rehabilitation. The first was when the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. was dedicated. A second test came around the holidays, while Steve wrote the Christmas skit for an organization he worked with.
“I had always written the skit drunk, and I was worried if I was going to be a good writer, or if I was going to be funny,” Steve said. “But I did it through the fear, and I figured if I could write sober, then I would not have to drink anymore.”
Ever since, writing has played a major role in Steve’s life. It seemed like no one could understand him, and no one wanted to discuss the horrific events of war, but he could write about it.
He went on to write and publish a novel loosely based on his experiences called For No Good Reason, and he recently wrote a second novel. More than anything, Steve loves the challenge of a blank page. He has a knack for taking all of his thoughts, some competing and conflicting, and using his focus and clarity to create something beautiful.
“I used to be a jock, and I’ve always looked at musicians as being magicians, and I think that writers, in their own way are the same,” Steve said.
“They can take these feelings, emotions, anger, and are able to translate it to paper.”
That’s why Steve was thrilled when he had an opportunity to meet fellow veteran artists at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, a weeklong celebration co-presented by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the American Legion Auxiliary. While there, Steve met and connected with people from all over the country, whom he would have never had a chance to interact with in his everyday life.
“We had a kind of shared experience, and I got to see that you’re not alone. Veterans may be a minority in this country, but we do not have to be solitary,” Steve said.
He also saw just how powerful art therapy is for so many veterans suffering from all kinds of mental health and drug abuse issues, and how the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival is a vehicle for those kinds of treatments.
“The ability of the American Legion Auxiliary to participate as fully as they do in this endeavor is something that is so essential to the mental well-being of veterans,” Steve said.
“We are all dealing with something that the vast majority of the American population doesn’t deal with, and even when it’s difficult for us to verbalize it, the ability to express it artistically is essential to the healing process.”
In honor of National Creative Arts Therapy week, consider making a gift to the American Legion Auxiliary Foundation, so that you can continue your support of veterans like Steve. Get started at www.ALAFoundation.org/donate.