Sitting in his garage just a few miles from the Capitol, where his job is to protect the building and those in it, Federico A. Ruiz is surrounded by splatters, brushes stiff with dried paint, and the rattling of a fan mounted on the wall.
The Capitol Police officer is an artist when he comes home and his garage is his studio. Painting is a way for him to cope with his memories from the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
“We were kind of like the first soldiers in a long sprint of peacetime, if you want to say that, that ended up going in and seeing Americans and soldiers dead. Deceased on U.S. soil,” Ruiz, 43, said.
In 2001, he was a team leader for a search and rescue team based at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He had been in the Army for five years.
On 9/11, his pager went off, “and I knew the number that I needed to call so I called it and it was my boss [who] said, ‘A plane just crashed into one of the towers in New York and we don’t know what’s going on. Can you get your team ready?’” Ruiz recalled. “Before I got to the floor that I needed to, I had the second pager go off and they said another plane had hit the other tower and to scramble the team to get on the tarmac.”
He led them into two Blackhawk helicopters and they traveled up the Potomac River toward Washington. By that time, another airliner had crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth hijacked plane was still out there, feared to be headed toward the White House or the Capitol. Ruiz’s team landed in Fort McNair in a holding pattern.
“We still didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “We knew something was going on, but we didn’t know it was a mass terrorist strike on U.S. soil.”
After the fourth airliner crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, Ruiz’s team was told to head to the Pentagon.
“I think it’s probably a couple hours after the plane had blown up that we were allowed to go in and at that point, unfortunately, we were going in hoping to rescue people, but we kind of knew that it was more of a, you know …” he hesitated, “… a mission to just search for survivors and prevent the building from collapsing.”
‘It was hard for me’
“A lot of people forget that people that were in the Pentagon were military and civilian and they were killed by a foreign entity for the first time in a long time on American soil,” Ruiz said. “So, dealing with that was hard for a lot of people.
“It was hard for me,” he said.
The military encouraged first responders to go to group sessions to deal with the trauma and to seek whatever other kind of help they needed.
Ruiz had painted as a child. “I looked into therapy on my own and saw that there was a technique of art therapy out there,” he said.
He started to paint frequently at home to learn to relax.
In this, he was not alone. Painting, sculpting, crafting and other arts have been used to treat veterans since the 1940s, said Melissa Walker, an art therapist at Walter Reed’s National Intrepid Center of Excellence.
She said service members who have sustained physical and psychological trauma to the brain have difficulty verbalizing what has occurred because of a shutdown in the speech-language area of the brain.
“Traditional talk therapy, on its own, may not be as effective without a therapist-led practice that is visual, sensory, and tactile, resulting in a product (the artwork) which the service member can then describe and process through, reintegrating the hemispheres of the brain,” she said in an email.
At first, Ruiz’s paintings reflected the emotions he was feeling.
“I don’t have any of the paintings because I … destroyed all those paintings,” he said. “It’s not the stuff that I wanted to do because it had to do a lot with just the ugliness. War.”
A ‘visual voice’
Walker said painting negative emotions is common.
“Many service members share they feel the art therapy gives them an opportunity to visually express what they often verbally cannot — it provides them with a ‘visual voice,’” she said.
Ruiz recalled some of his artworks including one crafted out of real gas masks, and a painting of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“It looked more like somebody’s nightmare than anything,” he said. “It got some emotions out, but it’s not what I wanted to paint so I started exploring different types of styles of painting and digging into who I am and what made me happy.”
Ruiz’s parents are from the Dominican Republic and they sent him there frequently as a child to learn about the culture.
Those memories were the inspiration behind his art show “Land, Sea & Sky: A Minimalist’s Caribbean,” hanging through July in Glen Echo Park, Maryland.
“Some of my happiest moments were being on the shoulders of my uncle and he would take me as a toddler into the beaches and I still have these vivid memories of the beaches, these beautiful beaches of the Dominican Republican, just strolling. How happy it made me,” he said.
“The landscapes, the minimalist landscapes, are what make me the happiest,” he said.
He added, “If people enjoy it, then great. But I don’t rely on my paintings to make a living, so I’m blessed that way. I can paint whatever I want and if you don’t like it, I’m sorry,” he said, laughing. “It’s what makes me happy.”
He paints after taking off his Capitol Police uniform, which he has worn for 15 years after leaving the Army after serving for seven years.
“Best job I ever had. I’m very happy to be a Capitol Police officer and it was a great transition from being in the military,” he said. “I still paint to keep my happiness and relaxation after work because you need that.”