The painting is at once stark and colorful: a pair of desert combat boots sits against a smoky, green background. The boots are worn in and weathered. They’re covered with paint, some red, like blood. Former Army Sgt. Yvette Pino calls this image of her boots from Iraq her “Self Portrait.”
At first glance, a second painting is simply the American flag, but look closer and you’ll see camouflage. The artist, former Army Sgt. Ron Whitehead, explained that “True Colors” represents not only the flag he served so faithfully during Desert Storm and the camouflage of his uniform, but also the deep connection between all veterans. The true colors of veterans, he said, will always shine through.
Former Army Spc. 5 Neil Leinwohl similarly commemorated his time in Vietnam with repeating elephants in a painting called “Chu Chi,” after a heavily tunneled area of the country. The elephants symbolize the Rome plows used by Leinwohl’s unit to uproot trees and deprive the enemy of cover. Viet Cong crawl through the blood-red tunnels below.
The three pieces are just a few of the 50 works of art scheduled to be exhibited at the Pentagon starting the week of Nov. 11. Sponsored and coordinated by the Veteran Artist Program, it’s the Pentagon’s first art show by all veteran artists, and will be on display for a year. Those who work in or have access to the Pentagon can view the art on the second floor, at the apex of the first and second corridors.
Founded by Army veteran B.R. McDonald in 2009, the Veteran Artist Program is dedicated to “helping veterans transition from a life in the military to a career in the arts.” The exhibit is a part of that, a way to show the world just how talented veterans are.
“I was impressed with the art’s quality. It’s of a professional level. We’re very pleased,” said Albert Jones, exhibit curator for the Pentagon. “The Pentagon Patriotic Art Program is a rotating art program that provides opportunity to artists throughout the country to exhibit art in honor of all those that serve in defense of our great nation. The VAP exhibit fits perfectly into the program because the artists are veterans. Veterans are actually foremost among those we’re honoring with the program. It is their selfless sacrifices, and that of their families, that help preserve the freedom of which every American is privileged. Our veterans more than deserve the very best opportunity that can be provided, and we’re very pleased to play a small part.”
The transition from war to the art world can be challenging, said Leinwohl, who left art school in 1966 to volunteer for the Army. Many of his friends were being drafted and it just felt like something he should do. Plus, he later realized, he wanted to prove he was as tough as his veteran father.
Leinwohl was soon on his way to Vietnam by ship as a photographer, where he would photograph soldiers from the 34th Engineers and later the 79th Engineer Group as they cleared forests and roads through the jungle. It was a dangerous mission that involved snipers and booby traps and Viet Cong tunnels directly beneath their feet. His first night outside Bien Hoa set the tone for that deployment.
“We trucked out to our site and that night we got mortared,” he remembered. “It was monsoon season and … at the end of the air strip, they must have just cleared the land away a few days before because all the dirt was unpacked. So when the heavy rains came in at night, all of our tents started to fall down. … For the first three weeks, all we did was fill sandbags. … It was all very ‘Welcome to Vietnam.’”
Then came Tet. The entrance to Long Binh was through Leinwohl’s company gate and the ammo supply point sat behind them, so they were a big target. “When they say that Long Binh was attacked, it was really my company. We got rocketed and there was a ground attack. … There was a lot of shooting and we were shooting back. I never realized what was really going on over there. There was a tremendous battle,” he said.
In fact, it was only years later, when he was lying in bed remembering “the most memorable evening of my life,” that he realized what could have happened. That’s when the fear hit. “I thought, ‘Wow. These guys actually came to kill me.’ It became very personal.”
After his tour in Vietnam, Leinwohl went to Airborne School at Fort Bragg, N.C., and actually returned to the war zone for a few months on an Army combat artist team. He had open travel orders and could go anywhere he wanted in country and take pictures that he would turn into paintings back in the States.
Then he went back to art school and got a job in advertising, both worlds where his friends and colleagues were far more likely to have protested the war than to have served. He didn’t meet many veterans until later on, so his artwork and his photography and also his poetry became a way to help him understand his experiences in combat.
“Most of my artwork involves Vietnam … not necessarily Vietnam [itself], but informed by Vietnam,” Leinwohl said. “If you look at my work, you’ll see elements of it that you can see ‘this guy must have been in the service.’ Overall, there seems to be a certain – someone once told me that looking at my photography, no matter what I take a picture of, it looks like my Vietnam pictures. … When I edit my photography or my paintings, I seem to go toward the dark. None of my work will look happy to you. It’s all based on my own personal experiences.”
It was Vietnam veterans like Leinwohl who helped Whitehead get through Desert Storm when he was just 20 years old and a Bradley driver in the 1st Armored Division.
“Almost every single leader I had when I was in the service were Vietnam veterans,” Whitehead explained. “Our first sergeant did two tours in Vietnam so he was a rock for us. … It really was [comforting]. It really was interesting. Our first sergeant was always this really grouchy, mean person, and then when we got to Iraq, his attitude totally changed. He became much more caring, much more comforting and it made us feel much better. … I could see it in his eyes: He was more worried about us. … It was just really amazing to see that, like how he’s trying to inspire us.”
That calm, steady experience helped inspire Whitehead to drive day and night as the 1st Armored Division pushed into Iraq, and was especially important when Whitehead’s unit came under attack from the Republican Guard and Russian-made anti-tank rounds. “It was just so impressive, all of us working as a team,” he remembered. “It’s just always a shocker, because you train for things like this and then all of a sudden … it’s like it’s real. You just do your job.”
Whitehead attended first community college and then a four-year institution when he got out of the Army. He studied art because he had always enjoyed drawing, and after a professor complemented his work, he realized that it was the first time anyone told him he was good at something in school.
Still, readjusting was difficult. He took more risks than he needed to. It was hard to relate to civilians, to talk about his experiences. So Whitehead, who is now a high school art teacher, turned to his artwork. “Everything I paint is from my military experience,” he explained. “Everything. … I don’t go to art therapy or anything, but I’ve talked to art therapists and they told me, ‘You’ve just been doing art therapy yourself.’ It motivates me. It’s something I get to do.”
Pino is more reluctant to use the term art therapy. She explained that veteran artists are often automatically grouped together with art therapists, and that often people assume there isn’t more to their art. While, like Whitehead and Leinwohl, she said her art has helped her better understand her combat experiences, she emphasized that she is a fine artist and that she worked hard in art school to develop her craft.
Actually, Pino’s talents go back much further than art school. She was always good at drawing and painting, so when she deployed to Iraq in 2003 with the 101st Airborne Division as a cook – a specialty she said let her be creative – and the commanding general’s aide came looking for an artist, she volunteered. She was soon designing the unit’s concrete barrier. (Pino explained that each unit that passed through Camp Doha in Kuwait on its way to Iraq painted a concrete barrier with its crest.)
“I had like two days to … do some research and then I had to come up with three renderings to show [to the general] for him to pick and then I was given paint and I was given like two days to paint it,” she remembered. “After that, we packed up and they drove me back to my unit and the next day we were preparing to cross the border. The reward for doing that was I got to keep the paint.
“Before I knew it, every day I had a new assignment: I had to paint stencils on the side of the Humvees. I had to paint porta potties. I had to paint supply lists. … For pretty much half of the deployment, I was getting out of convoys to paint unit crests on jersey barriers and helipads. … By the end of that first deployment, I had painted so much that they assigned two Iraqi men to work with me. I felt like Michelangelo in the desert.”
Pino, who also painted for much of her second deployment, said the extra duties sometimes overshadowed the very challenging work of feeding 2,000 soldiers and the increasingly dangerous job of convoying through the Iraqi desert as improvised explosive devices became a bigger and bigger threat.
After the Army, Pino went first to pastry school and then art school. Painting was and remains her first love, but she also discovered printmaking and realized it would be the perfect way to start a dialog between veterans and civilians.
The Veteran Print Project, which she founded to connect artists with veteran subjects, has “been a way to help veterans and civilians communicate again. Through this, the focus being a piece of artwork, takes a little of the pressure off what the conversation matter is going to be and the veteran can just tell whatever story they want to tell.” The artist then translates that story to a piece of printed art.
All three veterans are happy to be able to work with other veterans and use their art to help translate their military experiences. “It’s really good for me to stay connected and share my story,” said Whitehead. “Veterans I can talk to. Most veterans have that instant connection. I think with my art, it’s a way for people to look at and understand what I’ve been through.”
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