Artist Matthew Mitchell is painting portraits of Americans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Listen to the soldiers talk about their experiences in this gallery.
Media no longer available
From his small studio in Amherst, Mass., painter Matthew Mitchell felt disconnected from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He watched the news about them ebb and flow in the pages of newspapers. Sometimes the stories disappeared altogether.
"The big danger that we have is that we can forget about war," Mitchell says. He decided to keep that from happening.
His project, titled 100 Faces of War Experience, is deceptively simple. He's painting 100 portraits of people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's intended "to be a true look into something, not to be loaded with previously conceived prejudice."
So far, he's finished 33 paintings and says the process has taken on a much more powerful reality than he realized it would.
The first person Mitchell wanted to paint was Jeff Lucey, a United States Marine who took his own life when he returned home with post-traumatic stress. As he prepared to meet the family and describe his project, Mitchell realized he was completely out of his depth.
"No one I knew had ever been in war or had been attracted to the military — no one, no one in my family, nothing, so I felt I was entering a different world," Mitchell says. When he sat down with the Luceys, every preconception he had exploded.
Jeff's story is complicated. A convoy driver during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he began deteriorating when he came home.
"His drinking worsened," his father Kevin says. "His depression worsened; he became socially isolated; he stopped going to school — he was in college."
Jeff began hallucinating. His family had him involuntarily committed to the VA, but three days later, he was discharged. After he killed himself, the family sued the VA and won a settlement.
Kevin says Jeff told him he shot two unarmed Iraqi soldiers. That story has been disputed by the Marine Corps and by a number of Marines who were in Lucey's unit. Jeff told people the dog tags he was wearing belonged to the Iraqi soldiers.
Kevin says his son never took them off, "except for Christmas Eve. And then the day that he died, I found them on his bed."
Whether he ever encountered those soldiers, or whether the story was part of the deterioration he experienced from PTSD, Jeff got very little help.
"These are sons and daughters, these are friends, these are neighbors, we owe them much more," Kevin says.
Mitchell listened to the Luceys' story and looked at photographs of their son. It made him realize how important the project was.
"Through telling the stories and showing the pictures, [the Luceys] showed more faith in art, in the power of what I was doing — a very simple thing of painting — than I think I had."
Mitchell decided to look, listen and convey everyone with respect. And give them a voice of their own.
Each of Mitchell's portraits is accompanied by a personal statement from the subject. If the subject of the painting has died, it might be words from a letter.
Army Sgt. Rick Yarosh wrote his own statement to express his pride. "There is no boundary; you write how you feel," he says.
Yarosh was engulfed in flames when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. His face is now a mass of scar tissue. He was skeptical that Mitchell could capture who he was in a portrait — painters, he says, don't usually paint people like him.
"My features are totally different from anybody else," he says. "No ears, no nose, my eyes are different, my lips are different, the scars, how do you capture that? But Matt did it, and I really didn't know if I expected to see the finished product the way it was, and it was perfect."
Yarosh is proud of his service, proud of his brothers in the Army, and he keeps alive the memory of his friend Luis Montes, who died in that explosion. Everything goes back to that day, he says.
"That day made me who I am today, not just physically, but mentally," he says.
Despite his disfigured face, his scars, the leg that was amputated, he says he feels good. It's a choice.
"The negative side doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun, so the positive side was just as easy to choose," Yarosh says. "Well, to me it was — to some people it might not be. I don't want to sit in a room all day and sulk; I want to get out and do stuff."
Mitchell painted Margaret Oglesby from a photograph. Now a probation officer in Springfield, Mass., she spent 28 years in the Army National Guard. She was a force protection commander in Afghanistan starting 17 months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Being an American woman in Afghanistan was a challenge, especially in a combat zone after Sept. 11. "You train, you train, but you never know until the rubber hits the road, what you are capable of doing," she says.
Back then, she didn't understand how the pressures of commanding 150 people would affect her in the long term, she says. Her world view shifted.
The challenges of being a black woman in America "are nothing compared to some of the challenges the women in Afghanistan have," Oglesby says. "It is awesome to be an American and not to take for granted any of the freedoms we have here."
As for Mitchell's project, she says, it's so important to have the soldier's story told from the soldier's point of view. "That is the story," she says, "the real story."
Portrait No. 14 is of Tyler Boudreau, who spent a dozen years in the Marine Corps. Boudreau says when you look at the statements that accompany the portraits, they are so diverse that you are forced to think about the experience of war in complex ways.
"It is not all waving flags, and it is not all the glory of victory — there is something else going on," he says. "It traps people in a difficult place — which is what you want, I think."
Boudreau was the commander of a rifle company in Fallujah in 2004. Now he's a writer and the author of a book about his experiences called Packing Inferno. His personal statement says a commander must not look too closely into his own heart, as he might find things that could hinder his ability to make hard decisions in the heat of battle.
It's almost a slogan, he says: Success of the mission comes first, but also protect your troops. In other words, if you put the troops above the mission, then you'd keep them home.
That can become an emotional conflict during war, when the mission takes priority over bonds of friendship.
"I wasn't sleeping," Boudreau says, "and I was torn up about a lot of memories. It got to the point where I did not care about the mission more than my Marines. I knew in that capacity I could not serve as a commander, and I deemed myself ineligible for command, and I resigned."
"100 Faces of War Experience" is a nonprofit project of the Veterans Education Project and the New York Foundation for the Arts.