CHICAGO — The fallen Iraqi soldier's face is frozen in agony, his eyes and mouth wide open, his arms spread in surrender, his death in the Kuwaiti desert captured for posterity.
The sculpture's title: "Angel in the Desert."
Marcus Eriksen was a young Marine sergeant during the Gulf War, riding with a convoy to Kuwait City, when he encountered the Iraqi soldier. It was the first dead body he'd seen. The image was haunting, the experience unforgettable. But it took more than a decade before he started welding the memory into art.
Using a mannequin, an old uniform and plaster cast of his face and hands, Eriksen produced a mold and lined it with 70,000 steel ball bearings. He meticulously recreated the scene: the soldier on his back, knees bent. His insides exposed beneath his shirt. And swooping curves in the sand that suggested he'd moved his arms like a kid making snow angels.
This, says Eriksen, is not "an anti-war message. It's a reality of war message."
Every November, America honors its veterans with grand parades, speeches and tributes. But more than 350 veterans of Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan have turned to art to preserve more intimate and enduring memories of war, and more than 2,500 of their works have found a home at Chicago's National Veterans Art Museum.
The modest museum, which focused at first on Vietnam vets but has since expanded, includes paintings, prints, drawings, poetry, photos, sculpture, collages and video. Most of the vets are trained artists who've used their skills to illustrate harrowing life-and-death experiences, explore personal demons and celebrate fallen comrades. This is art that dredges up nightmares for some, and healing for others – Eriksen, among them.
Now 45, he vividly remembers Feb. 24, 1991, when he and about a dozen other Marines stood around staring silently at the dead soldier sprawled 30 feet from his incinerated truck. "No one would cry," he says. "As a Marine, you just suck it up."
"Seeing him put a face on the suffering," Eriksen recalls. "I knew he was dead but his family didn't. ... All that death and destruction – was it worth it? If you're going to commit young people to kill and be killed, you have to have a solid reason for it. And I don't think we had that."
Eriksen, now an environmental activist in California, began creating his sculpture shortly after the first bodies of U.S. troops started coming home from Iraq in 2003. It stirred up emotions of his days in uniform.
"It allowed me to remove the burden of my memories of Kuwait, of all the bodies, of the stench. ... Just making the sculpture ... would bring tons of sadness," Eriksen says. "I would think about that person and what happened every day. At some point, I thought, `Do I want to feel that way the rest of the day?' Eventually you tell yourself, as I did, no, I'm not going to beat myself up a millionth time. I'm done with that."
A man with a mustache, a fringe of brown hair and almost cartoon-like huge brown eyes looks out from the canvas. His lips are a barely defined pink oval. His expression is blank.
Title: Thousand Mile Stare.
More than 30 years passed before Helen White painted the picture of the officer she saw at the 67th Evacuation Hospital in Qui Nhon, where she served as an orthopedic nurse. She doesn't remember his name, his face or much else beyond the fact that he'd arrived there after surviving a firefight that had killed almost everyone else. His eyes telegraphed his trauma.
"They were wide open, they were scanning, looking for safety and looking for danger," White says. "If you see the stare, it's not something you forget. ... The memories stay in my mind, even if I don't focus on them. And, of course, there's the mystery – what happened, how did he recover, what impact did it have on his life."
Some people, she says, are disturbed by her painting; others think the raw image isn't even art.
White, who turns 65 on Tuesday, is retired from nursing and grappling with service-related PTSD, which she says has grown so intense that she has become agoraphobic. "Just going to the grocery store is a challenge," she says. "Sometimes I just stay in my house."
Painting has brought some solace, and also puts her in contact with a world beyond her Missouri home; she follows the works of artists who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and sees a commonality in their creations. "It gets back to the same song, just another verse," she says. "War is war."
"I don't regret being there," White says of Vietnam. "There's a lot I wish I could have done. I got off the plane, did what I could. I got back on the plane and came home. Some people didn't. So this artwork is like leaving a sign behind that I was here. It's like a cave painting. I never intended it to be that, but in a way it's a legacy."
A toy soldier is trapped in an orange pill bottle, the lid screwed on top. His arms are raised over his head, his rifle is held high in one hand, his right knee is bent as if he's trying to climb out.
This print – created on paper made from an old Army uniform – hints of Malachi Muncy's two life-changing tours with the Texas National Guard in Iraq.
He was just 18 when he first deployed, and once in the combat zone, Muncy says he began taking sleeping pills to shut out the world. The constant dangers he faced on truck-driving convoys were overwhelming.
"So much bad stuff happened," he recalls. "Watching IEDs explode, and mortars hit. Being pinned down on bridges, you wonder where the fire is coming from. You just sit and wait to get shot at and you have no control over whether you're going to live or die ... I was having nightmares. I really felt I was going to do stupid things and hurt the wrong people. I was having thoughts I couldn't expel."
Muncy got into trouble, he says, pointing a weapon at a superior after a mission in which he went 36 hours without sleep.
When he returned home, life unraveled. He slept all day, he says, started hanging around with the wrong crowd, got hooked on methamphetamines, amassed a pile of speeding tickets and was arrested for shoplifting. He took an overdose of pills – he's not sure if it was a suicide attempt.
And yet, almost inexplicably, he returned for a second tour in 2006. Muncy, who later was diagnosed with PTSD, says he wanted to get away from "the mess" and all the pills.
That second stint went far more smoothly and Muncy, now 27, began keeping a journal. When he returned to Texas – he works at a coffee house in Killeen, outside Fort Hood – he attended college and became interested in poetry, photography and other arts.
"It's about sharing the experience," he says. "It's not just something that haunts you."
Using a toy soldier and a pill bottle he'd kept on his key chain, Muncy produced one print showing the trapped soldier. A second one shows the bottle tipped over, the soldier crawling out on his belly. That one is appropriately called Escape.
"They're both me," Muncy says. "It's not then and now. It's a back and forth. Sometimes I still feel like the guy trapped in the bottle."
A desperate Vietnamese mother clutches her starving baby on her chest as she flees her village. Looking back, she sees the chaos of her hamlet under attack. A Viet Cong soldier has his rifle pointed at the head of a villager on his knees, praying before he's executed.
Title: The Refugee.
Richard Olsen created the yellow-and-black linocut after returning home following a year's tour as an Army helicopter pilot with the 33rd Transportation Company in Vietnam. He came back in 1963, and the war in faraway Southeast Asia was not yet fully on America's radar, so producing these images was his way of sounding an alarm.
"It was like, `Hey, you guys, there's a war going on,'" Olsen says. "Why make pictures of flowers? Why not make pictures of war?"
Olsen had always wanted to be an artist growing up in Wisconsin – he earned a master of fine arts degree – and Vietnam allowed him to create works that he says reveal a "little man swept into a world beyond his control."
"I had to tell the story ... the valiance, the heroism, the sacrifices, the personal giving for causes bigger than yourself," says Olsen, now a 76-year-old professional artist living in Georgia. "It occurs on both sides."
Olsen's work – paintings, drawing and prints – is ripe with pain, sacrifice and patriotism.
There's a POW, viewed from behind, on his knees, his hands bound behind his back with his shoe laces, waiting to be killed; an eerie bluish outpost at 4 a.m., illuminated by a searchlight; a tender portrait of his bunk mate, a lieutenant who didn't make it home. And then there's Hill 881, site of one of the bloodiest Marine battles in Vietnam.
The hill painting was created by copying stencil shapes onto a canvas. It repeats the same scene of three soldiers: one climbing a hill, one higher up, tumbling down after being hit, and the third at the top falling backward as he's shot. That final image was inspired by the famous Robert Capa photo of the fallen soldier in the Spanish Civil War.
"I wanted to make it an endless plight ... of the Marines trying to take the hill over and over and over," Olsen says. "There's just an absurd twist to it."
Olsen moved beyond Vietnam to an artistic career that has spanned more than 50 years; he's produced more than 1,000 paintings, many of them abstract. His work has been shown in galleries around the country.
Yet those days when he flew his chopper over the dense thicket of jungle maintain a deep hold on him.
"War is the depth of the human experience," he says. "It's the most meaningful part of anyone's life."
A stately building in Kabul is consumed by a bomb. Gray clouds of smoke and red bursts of fire billow from the windows. Splashes of red, blue and yellow tents on clotheslines frame the bottom of a degraded print.
Title: Transfer's of War (triptych 1, part 2).
Ash Kyrie wasn't an artist before he went to Iraq with the Wisconsin Army National Guard. But after his return in 2004, the former debate champ no longer wanted to follow family tradition and become a lawyer. "I was a different person," he says. "I wasn't interested in the same things. I threw away my TV. I wanted to express feelings and emotions."
He enrolled in art classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, read the newspapers religiously and became mesmerized by photos of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They seemed remote from his experiences, not reflecting the brutality he'd seen.
Over two years, Kyrie, now 31, collected about 1,500 photos from major newspapers and categorized them in three groups: benign intervention, showing U.S., troops following local customs or mingling with villagers; abstract explosions, images that are too far away to show the grisly consequences; and something he called sacrifice – Iraqis and Afghans, killed by each other, not coalition forces.
Kyrie took some of the photos, blew them up into enormous prints and, using a transfer process, altered the images. From a distance, the harsh scene scenes are recognizable, but up close they look like a collection of beautiful crystals.
There is no political message here, Kyrie says, just a way of illustrating the gap between war as it is and the way it is portrayed in the media.
Art, says Kyrie, has helped him come closer to understanding his tour in Iraq.
"I think about the war every day," he says. "I think about my experience. Every soldier tries to quantify or organize it in some way. I got back in 2004 and I still haven't come to a conclusion. I don't know if I ever will. Every emotion you went through goes through your head. You relive it. You remember it. It's a very intense time being at war. Every moment is memorable."
Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer. She can be reached at scohen(at)ap.org.
National Veterans Art Museum: http://www.nvam.org
Marcus Eriken's work: http://www.marcuseriksen.com
Richard J. Olsen's work: www.richardjolsen.com
Ash Kyrie's work: www.ashkyrie.com