Brain injuries caused by blast events change soldiers in ways many can’t articulate. Some use art therapy, creating painted masks to express how they feel.
By Caroline Alexander Photographs and Audio by Lynn Johnson
Marine Cpl. Chris McNair (Ret.)
“I had this muzzle on with all these wounds and I couldn’t tell anybody about them.”
“I THOUGHT THIS WAS A JOKE,” recalled Staff Sgt. Perry Hopman, who served as a flight medic in Iraq. “I wanted no part of it because, number one, I’m a man, and I don’t like holding a dainty little paintbrush. Number two, I’m not an artist. And number three, I’m not in kindergarten. Well, I was ignorant, and I was wrong, because it’s great. I think this is what started me kind of opening up and talking about stuff and actually trying to get better.”
Hopman is one of many service members guided by art therapist Melissa Walker at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), which is part of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland. Images painted on their masks symbolize themes such as death, physical pain, and patriotism.
Army Staff Sgt. Perry Hopman
“I think he was one of the first patients I’d ever had to ask me to let him die.”
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Tam (Ret.)
Iraq 2004-05, 2007-08
PHOTOGRAPHED WITH HIS WIFE, ANGELA, AND THEIR TWO CHILDREN
“Detonation happened and I was right there in the blast seat. I got blown up.”
Air Force Staff Sgt.
Robert “Bo” Wester (Ret.)
Iraq 2007, 2008-09, Afghanistan 2010
“If a mistake is made at that point, then death is almost certain.”
Army Maj. Jeff Hall (Ret.)
Iraq 2003-04, 2005
PHOTOGRAPHED WITH HIS WIFE, SHERI (AT LEFT), AND THEIR TWO DAUGHTERS
“I told him, I’m not cleaning your brains off the bedroom wall.”
Army First Sgt. David Griego
Iraq 2008, Afghanistan 2012
PHOTOGRAPHED WITH HIS WIFE, TRACY
“Sometimes you find yourself saying, I wish ... I would have lost a body part, so people will see—so they’ll get it.”
Marine Cpl. Chris McNair (Ret.)
PHOTOGRAPHED WITH HIS MOTHER, SANDRA
“He’ll live the rest of his life with the nightmares, the images, and that’s what the military can’t fix.”
Thank you for making this available to us. It deserves a much broader audience. At minimum, every member of Congress, every representative to the United Nations, and every world leader – or would-be world leader – should be made to view these masks and listen to these recordings.
This articular cot my eye when I saw my mask on the front of it. As I read through this and know that there are others Vets out there still going through the tough times along with me. I know that i am not alone and neither are they in this Battle. the Wounds that people cannot see or understand makes it hard. The struggle on having to force your self to live everyday and not give up, Or the struggles of dealing with interactions on day to day or when some one ask whats wrong with you, you look OK. Thinking to yourself all the time whats wrong with me. When all you want to do is go hide, that they will never understand how hard it is for so many of us, to go out and do the normal day to day things to go to the store for our kids or to go out in public and not have to worry about every little thing. I have been in a struggle dealing with a numerous different things. I go through each day looking at what had happened. trying to find ways to let go.
Seeing this articular and other brothers, knowing that others are making out there ,it helps push forward. As i hope it will help others. I hope that there is a place of peace that we are able to find. i know that we hide behind the mask to not let loved ones and others know what is wrong. That we keep pushing on. We have to pry the layers back and try an find the light. We have to take steps forward to make life better. I know to some that the masks are just a peace of art, but to a lot of warriors it is a way of expressing our self. The words are hard to find when talking about our self and some times we hide our scars.
Very powerful images and stories. it is so sad that humans solve there differences in such violent ways that it leaves such scares on the hearts and minds of soldiers who will never fully recover from the trauma both physical and mental. I was very upset when I found out my niece had to do her first tour in Afghanistan and didn't understand why she would choose this kind of a career but after she left and started showing us the importance of her job I was so very proud of her and all the soldiers she worked with. They do so much more then just protecting us from harm. They give all of themselves to helping improve the lives of people in places all around the world. She definitely changed my view's of the military. I am so sorry for the trauma many of them have endured and will live with for the rest of their live's but I want each and everyone of them to know how important they are and that they are loved by many people around the world. No good deed should EVER go UNNOTICED!!!
First I would like to thank all the soldiers for their service. I am truly sorry the military doesn't do enough for you and your families when you get home. I am a great believer in art therapy and I am really glad to see that it has helped many of you express things that cannot be expressed. I truly understand. They say that time heals all wounds. Scars remain....Never give up. Know that you are loved and cherished. You have my admiration, gratitude and utmost respect. Keep fighting the good fight.
Thank you for gathering and sharing this information. It is important for general population all over the world to realize how deep are the scars of those who were exposed to traumatic events of any extent, and how hard it is for them and their loved ones to cope with the altered situation. When no physical scar can be seen, it is very normal for people to assume and expect that one should behave and just be as any other common citizen. There is no point of reference for them. It is there only for the closest family, who knows what is going on, who lives it through every day. Congratulations to those soldiers and their families who dared to try the art therapy despite so many initial second thoughts. You have shown that losing the fear and prejudice about trying something new that you doubt might do any good to you, you have actually gained something. And you have gained admiration and respect from lots of readers, too. Thanks for sharing.
Follow the money. There is the evel. Those who profit from the misery of others. The gullible ordinary people who volunteer their life to serve others. There is definitely a need to help, serve and protect when called upon, but Afghanistan and Iraq was not only a big mistake, but also a horrendous lie and we still send our young man to this god forsaken part of the world. Our democracy does not work out over there. Their changes must come from within. That was our evolution too from the barbaric times of our history.
Holy smokes, these are amazing! What great expression. But instead of these masks, why don't we just stop the nightmares? Stop killing. Stop fighting. We've come up with all kinds of ideas to justify a seeming reality that people just want to divide and conquer--at any cost. We've see the crazy "outcomes" over and again throughout history. We blew up much of Japan and some 200,000 of it's citizens. How many were maimed? Or died deaths much earlier than they would have otherwise due to radiation poisoning? Now we are all "friends". That's just one VERY SMALL example. Go ahead. You name another example. Where/when have millions been killed in the name of some political position, then have "made up" after it's over. After so many have died. It's crazy, power mongering leaders set this crap into motion, frothing up the masses with so-called patriotism. Patriotism. A much misused and abused word! Ideas of patriotism shoved down people's throats as a bogus test of solidarity--in God's name. To the men in masks I say, I am so very sorry. You did what has been deemed righteous by centuries of ideology. I am so sorry for all the lives throughout history that were forever altered ... for what? What was really accomplished? How many lives of soldiers, non-combatants, war "collateral" and otherwise, have been ruined by CONCEPTS? We have centuries and centuries and centuries of wars from which to draw the conclusion that it just doesn't work. Chris Pine states it correctly: WAR IS THE FAILURE OF DIPLOMACY!
It took 15 years following my tour of duty in Vietman 1968-69 to be diagnosed with PTSD and other 10 before the VA agreed. I thought what I had was just normal. Normal, sure... One marriage, and countless failed relationships until I got professional help, and medication that allows me to truly be normal. I still get stressed in tight quarters, crowds, noise, packed elevators, and I need to sit facing in a certain direction when I am out to dinner; but after >35 years the night sweats are gone, the vivid nightmares, dreams of hopelessness are gone. If you are recent Vet don't waste your life thinking its just normal. Get help, it works. You can lead a long and productive life.
As I look at the masks and think of the faces behind the masks I think of the tragedy of our wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither war had to take place. The Taliban had told the Bush administration that if they could show that Bin Laden was behind 9/11 they would arrest him. Prior to 9/11 the Bush administration had been dealing with the Taliban. The Taliban leadership met with people in the Bush administration. Bush and his people wanted an oil pipeline across Afghanistan and the Taliban was told that they could have a carpet of gold or a carpet of bombs. They got a blanket of bombs and thousands of Americans and even more Afghanis died.
Those who went to Iraq where sent on a mass of lies. Every member of the Bush/Cheney regime warned about the nonexistent WMDs. The weapons inspectors said that the WMDs had been destroyed but their truth was drowned out by the lies of the Bush regime. Close to one million Iraqis died in the US onslaught, 4 millions were made refugees and a country was destroyed. Our American servicemen were sent to fight and die for lies.
The only people who made out well were the weapons manufacturers and vice-president Dick Cheney whose Haliburton company raked in some $68 billion from the Iraq War alone.
My heart goes out to these men who served Bush and Cheney. I hope that they recover they will tell their sons and daughters to think twice before they volunteer for yet another war.
War is hell! The Iraqi war was NOT necessary regardless of the arguments put forth. It was simply the USA attacking another sovereign country for, as it turns out, no justifiable reason. A lot of young men and women paid the price for politicians' stupidity!!
Afghanistan is another fool's play! Want to place a bet on who will be running the country in 5-10 year's time!?
@Brian Allan If the USA wanted to respond to the 9/11 murders, it would have made more sense to attack Saudi Arabia, where most of the terrorists came from, and where Wahabi Islam preaches its hatred of the West, and fills young men's heads with dreams of a World-wide Islamic Caliphate. This is the spiritual homeland of Al Quieda and Islamic State.
Afghanistan held the training and support bases of the Al Quieda where the 9/11 plot was hatched and commanded: it was a logical response to attack the enemy there.
IRAQ made no sense at all: even though they had weapons of Mass destruction (Now in Syria), they had nothing that could reach beyond their own borders, and Hussein was an enemy of Osama Bin Laden.