“America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war; America is at the mall.” - handwritten note on a wall in Iraq
There are times when art pleases, when art shocks and when art incites. And then... there are times when art stops your heart in your throat, and you try to imagine what the artist experienced.
I sat on the sidewalk with combat veterans and artists Chris Tomlin and Daniel Lopez on a recent sunny afternoon under their latest mural on the side of the Adams Avenue Car Wash in Normal Heights.
Both men belong to Combat Arts, a veterans organization founded by artist and veteran Elizabeth Washburn. The organization is specifically for those who served in combat.
Combat Arts runs a Concussion Clinic at Camp Pendleton and has joined forces with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego for Project Oasis, and the Timken Museum of Art for a pilot program at the Naval Hospital in Balboa Park. The organization provides weekly art classes, treatment for mental health and physical injuries, veteran mentoring, exhibition opportunities and public art projects, including the Veteran Art Mural Project.
Tomlin joined the Marines in September 2001, right after the infamous Sept. 11 attacks. He went immediately to boot camp, then to Kuwait in 2003, and on to Iraq for three more tours. He told me of his surprisingly deadly second tour, and the shock and lasting effects it caused.
“We thought combat was the hardest things we would ever have to do. The amount of horrific things you see, you question your moral compass,” he said. “But coming home was the hardest.”
Lopez joined in 2003, became a rifleman and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. He described to me the surreal and horrifying experience of being blown up by an improvised explosive device (IED), for which he was awarded the Purple Heart. Their searing real-life accounts are scenarios the majority of us are unable to fathom.
For both Tomlin and Lopez, this latest mural has stood out for them.
“We put our hearts and souls into this work,” Tomlin said.
Lopez, who is also a dog trainer, explained the genesis of the project.
“The seed where this all came from, was that a lot of veterans have or need service dogs. They often leave them at home, because everyone wants to pet them, and they aren’t pets.” Once you know this, you can seem more clearly that on the mural, the painted dog’s jacket reads: “Please don’t ask to pet my service dog” and it takes on a new world of understanding and respect.
But this type of topic is often difficult to discuss and confront.
“It’s hard stuff to talk about, PTSD, TBI (traumatic brain injury) the problems with VA, the lack of funding,” said Tomlin. “There is a lot of negative aspects, it’s nonstop.”
For them, the goal is being allowed to do projects without a filter. In this mural, you see that filter lowered, with medications imaged, along with the words fear, desperation and isolation depicted. But you also see the word hope, and the phrase “a true best friend,” showing the path of healing for many veterans.
Truthfully, I could have sat there all afternoon and listened to their experiences, their perspectives and their incredible insight into art.
As we stood and dusted ourselves off, I asked them what the one thing is that they wish the public could understand about combat veterans.
“We’re not crazy,” Lopez said. “We aren’t going to blow anything up.”
Tomlin said politics shouldn’t matter when it comes to veterans.
“Veterans make up 1 percent of the population and combat veterans make up .1 percent. If our government cannot take care of the people who made it possible for us to live in a free country ... then our country has failed. We aren’t asking you to live in guilt,” he said, “but it doesn’t mean you can stick your head in the sand.”
The mural, which was unveiled during Art Around Adams earlier this month, can be viewed at 3302 Adams Ave. in Normal Heights. To learn more about Combat Arts and how you can support the organization, visit combatartssd.org.
Laurie Delk is an avid art historian, holding a master’s degree in Art History, with concentrations in the Modern and Postmodern movements. She has taught classes at Tulane University, and has been published with several art publications including Sculpture Magazine and New Orleans Art Review. Send ideas for art stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.