For many Americans, the connection between the U.S. military and the performing arts is still personified by the legendary comedian Bob Hope and his work with the United Service Organizations. Though Hope retired from the USO in 1991 after 50 years of entertaining servicemen, servicewomen, veterans, families, and caregivers, his legacy of connecting live performance to the military community lives on. Programs like Lincoln Center's Veterans Initiative—as well as new USO programs and many other arts-based support organizations—have become critical not only to the morale of American troops overseas, but also to the successful reintegration of veterans and families back home.

According to Ed Walsh, US Marine Corps Veteran and head of Lincoln Center's Veterans Initiative, the donor-funded program is providing a great service to veterans as they become familiar with the benefits the arts can offer.

"The exposure to fine art is something they may never have had access to growing up, or even now because of a high price point," Walsh said in a recent interview. "We are giving veterans access to experiences and a community that bring a sense of calm and appreciation, and also shows them that they are capable of creating art themselves."

Five years ago, the Veterans Initiative came out of an idea to create a six-month fellowship position at Lincoln Center, supported by a partnership between the institution's Board of Directors and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). That initial fellowship led to the first Military Ticket Outreach and Engagement Program, which launched with tickets to the New York City Ballet's 2012–2013 season performance of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker®. This first successful outreach turned into annual broadcasts of the ballet on Armed Forces Network, as well as a lasting ticket program that offers free performances for veterans, servicemembers, and their families and caregivers, who often do not have access to cultural experiences like attending the ballet or the opera. Since 2014, through generous donor purchases and box office partnerships, Lincoln Center's Veterans Initiative has provided veterans more than 4,500 tickets to performances on campus.

"We are giving veterans access to experiences and a community that bring a sense of calm and appreciation, and also shows them that they are capable of creating art themselves."

The initial fellowship has expanded, as has the initiative. Partners have grown to include local active duty military networks, The Mission Continues, the USO, and many others, as ticket donations have spread. Fellowship opportunities now encompass summer internships and forums, a military families and kids program, numerous scholarships, and participation in Lincoln Center Education's increasingly popular Teaching Artist Development Lab.

"The Lincoln Center program helped me expand my teaching style for facilitating writing workshops for veterans," says Jenny Pacanowski, US Army Veteran and Teaching Artist Development Lab participant. "[It] allowed me to see what I was doing for my fellow veterans was also a viable profession as well as my passion."

Pacanowski also notes the advantage of access to Lincoln Center in bridging the gap between the military and civilian arts communities and presenting new forums for her to develop her own art—in this case, poetry. The programs offered helped her find the courage to share her work, and she felt able to open a better dialogue about her experience as a veteran.

This is exactly what Walsh hopes to hear, saying his real passion in leading the initiative is finding more ways to promote professional, veteran-created and veteran-performed artworks through Lincoln Center. And he has already had great success with this model, enjoying packed houses for free shows at the David Rubenstein Atrium for both The Home Show—a 2015 performance of veteran-created works including ballet, screen, opera, and readings—and, in 2016, Voices From the Long War, a scripted production combining six true stories—three from veterans and three from refugees—from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Walsh hopes to see this aspect of the initiative grow in the coming years.

So as previous military generations fostered a connection to performance through individuals like Bob Hope, we are now able to continue this growth through communities at home. The Lincoln Center Veterans Initiative's programs and advocacy have strengthened partnerships with the USO, IAVA, The Mission Continues, The NYC Veterans Alliance, Department of Veterans Services, Armed Forces Network, and many other local and national organizations. Lincoln Center's commitment to this work is yet another example of its belief in the unifying power of the performing arts.


Elana Duffy is a 10-year, Purple Heart veteran with Army service during the conflicts in Iraq in Afghanistan. She now lives in New York City where she is a regular contributor to www.task&purpose.com, www.havokjournal.com, and several other publications. She is also COO of the content creation firm www.presenttensellc.com and CEO of www.pathfinder.vet.