The Old Guard:
The One I Remember:
When I returned to the U.S. from the Caribbean in March of 2007, I started to think about what I might do next. The idea that kept coming across my mind was of the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems to me that the legacy of Iraq will be the wounded, of whom there are 16 for every soldier who dies. In World War I, the ratio was more like one wounded for every battlefield death. Advances in emergency medicine mean that in 2007, if a soldier leaves the scene alive, breathing and with a pulse, he or she has more than a 95% chance of survival, no matter how severely injured. By my estimate, that means that there are more than 60,000 wounded soldiers from the Iraq conflict alone, many of them in long term rehabilitation.
Things rarely go according to plan, as the saying goes. I wasn't getting any positive response from the two army medical centers where most wounded soldiers were being treated, but in the meantime, the Veterans' Administration Medical Center had responded enthusiastically to my preliminary enquiries, and asked if I would be willing to paint veterans from other conflicts. I began the project in May of 2007.
I don't come from a military family, and I entered adolescence to the soundtrack of the anti-war demonstrations in the late 60's and early 70's, so I really had little idea of what to expect. The VA is a vast organisation, employing nearly a quarter of a million people many of them civilians, along with a supporting army of thousands of volunteers, most of them retired military personnel.
My portrait painting project was categorised as "Recreational Therapy," which struck me as rather funny, when I first heard the phrase, but turned out to be a good description of my activities. I set up my easel in a public area between the entrance to a patio and the nurses station. Patients, staff and family members come through often, so I get plenty of feedback on what I'm doing. The whole scenario seems to be a lot of fun for everyone, not just the person I'm painting.
Some of the people I painted were only in the military briefly, others were in for 30 years. Some served in peacetime, others in multiple wars. Some were in the nursing home for a day or two, some were in for a couple of weeks to give their caregivers a little time off, some are in for the long term. The home also includes a hospice unit and a number of those I painted have since died.