LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
As the nation remembers its war dead this Memorial Day weekend, Matt Mitchell is honoring veterans through art. He's painting portraits of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mitchell plans to do 100 works. So far, he's completed 33. Each portrait also features a written statement about the subject. Together, the painting and the words create a much more complex view of those who served.
NPR's Margot Adler paid a visit to Matt Mitchell's studio for the story.
MARGOT ADLER: Sitting in his small studio in Amherst, Massachusetts, Matt Mitchell says he felt disconnected from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He watched the news about them ebb and flow in the pages of newspapers, sometimes disappearing altogether.
Mr. MATTHEW MITCHELL (Artist): The big danger that we have is that we can forget about war, that we can forget about these particular wars.
ADLER: The firs person he wanted to paint was Jeffrey 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, he realized he was completely out of his depth.
Mr. MITCHELL: No one I knew had ever been in war or had been attracted to the military - no one. No one in my family, nothing. You know, I felt like I was entering a different world.
ADLER: 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. Kevin Lucey...
Mr. KEVIN LUCEY: His drinking worsened. His depression worsened. He became socially isolated. He wasn't going to school anymore - he was in college.
ADLER: He began hallucinating. His family had him involuntarily committed to the VA, but three days later, he was discharged. After Jeff killed himself, the family sued the VA and won a settlement.
Kevin Lucey 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. Lucey says his son wore their dog tags.
Mr. LUCEY: He never took them off except for Christmas Eve and then the day that he died, I found them on his bed.
ADLER: Whether he ever encountered those soldiers, or whether the story was part of the deterioration he experienced from PTSD, Jeff Lucey got very little help.
Mr. LUCEY: These are sons and daughters. These are friends. These are neighbors. We owe them much more.
ADLER: Painter Matt Mitchell listened to the Luceys' story and looked at photographs of their son and he realized...
Mr. MITCHELL: Through telling the stories and showing the pictures, they showed more faith in art, in the power of what I was doing - a very, very simple thing of painting - than I think I had.
ADLER: So he decided he would look, listen and convey everyone with respect. As for his decision to include personal statements with the pictures...
Mr. MITCHELL: I remember just standing there looking at the floor and thinking: Can I really do this? Can I allow people to say whatever they want next to the portrait?
ADLER: Mitchell realized he had to allow his subjects to speak freely.
Army Sergeant Rick Yarosh used his statement to express his pride.
Sergeant RICK YAROSH (Cavalry Scout, United States Army): There's no boundary. You write how you feel.
ADLER: Yarosh's vehicle was hit by an IED. He was engulfed in flames. He wondered if Mitchell could capture who he was in a portrait. Painters, he says, don't usually paint people like me.
Sgt. YAROSH: You know, my features are totally different from anybody else. From what you learn: No ears, no nose. You know, 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.
ADLER: 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 from that explosion. Everything goes back to that day, he says.
Sgt. YAROSH: That day made me who I am today, not just physically but mentally.
ADLER: He says despite his disfigured face, his scars, the leg that was amputated, he feels good. It's a choice, he says.
Sgt. YAROSH: The negative side doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun, so the positive side is just as easy to choose. Well, to me it was. I mean, to some people it might not be. But I don't want to sit in a room all day and sulk. I want to get out and do stuff.
ADLER: Mitchell took me to meet Margaret Oglesby, a probation officer in Springfield, Massachusetts. He painted her from a photograph. She spent 28 years in the Army National Guard and was a force protection commander in Afghanistan, starting 17 months after 9/11, helping the Afghan army. Being an American woman in Afghanistan was a challenge.
Ms. MARGARET OGLESBY (Assistant Chief Probation Officer/Former Major Force Protection Commander): What it means to be a woman in that kind of environment, in a combat zone, and just the whole uncertainty of 9/11 and going to another country. You know, you train, you train, you train, but you really never know until the rubber meets the road what you're capable of doing. And not really understanding before I left the pressures and the effect of the responsibility of commanding over 150 people - how that affects long-term.
ADLER: Her world view shifted. The challenges she had being a black woman in America...
Ms. OGLESBY: Are nothing compared to some of the challenges the women in Afghanistan have. To understand that it is awesome to be an American and not to take for granted any of the freedoms that we have here.
ADLER: As for this project, she says it's so important to have the soldier's story told from the soldier's point of view.
Ms. OGLESBY: Yeah, that's the story. That's the real story.
Mr. TYLER BOUDREAU (Author/Former Infantry Rifle Company Commander, Marine Corps): It's not all waving flags. And it's not all, you know, the glory of victory. There's something else going on.
ADLER: Tyler Boudreau, who is Portrait #14, spent a dozen years in the Marine Corps. He says when you look at the statements, they are so diverse that you are forced to think complexly about the experience of war.
Mr. BOUDREAU: It traps people in a difficult place - which is what you want, I think.
ADLER: 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, he might find things that could hinder his ability to make hard decisions in the heat of battle. He says it's almost a slogan: Success of the mission comes first but also, protect your troops.
Mr. BOUDREAU: Until all of a sudden a war comes around and you say, whoah, I see what they mean now. So all of these close bonds that I've developed, now all of a sudden I have to put them beneath...
ADLER: The mission is first.
Mr. BOUDREAU: Yeah. You know, I mean, you've got to so that you can get it done. Because if I indeed cared about the troops more than the mission - well, I'd just stay home, I wouldn't send them out on missions, right?
So I had come back from deployment in Iraq and I was the CO of a rifle company and I wasn't sleeping. I was, you know, kind of really tore up about a lot of memories. And it got to the point where I did not care about the mission more than my Marines. And I knew in that capacity I could not serve as a commander. So I deemed myself ineligible for command, as I say there, and I resigned.
ADLER: Thirty-one of the 33 portraits are soldiers or Marines. There's one civilian artist who went to Iraq and one peace activist who worked there. Mitchell is now painting a contractor. But the main idea, he says, was to do something contemplative, to use art to draw people's attention to something.
Mr. MITCHELL: And for it to a true look into something. To not to be loaded with previously conceived prejudice, but really to see.
ADLER: It's a deceptively simple idea. But, says Mitchell, a much powerful reality and process than he ever thought when he started.
Margot Adler, NPR News.
HANSEN: You can see some of Mitchell's work at our Web site, NPR.org.
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