I did something over the weekend that I never did before—I attended a military exhibition. Travis, one of the boys that Sister Mary and I helped raise, is an Iraq war veteran and he brought the national traveling exhibition, “Eyes of Freedom” to the Erie Civic Center.
Though I’ve given most of my adult life to protesting war and preparations for war, I have never judged those who serve in war. When I was studying for a Master’s degree in Peace Studies, I read every book that I could find that was written by a former soldier because I wanted to understand what drew them to the military and what they experienced and learned in the midst of battle. What heavy load they carried home with them in their ruck sacks. I learned a lot from those books and remember admiring the heroism I encountered in those pages and also weeping over the personal tragedies and broken dreams of so many. I wondered, too, and still wonder, why the peace movement can’t generate the same numbers of people who would be willing to literally lay down their lives for what they believed.
“Eyes of Freedom” honors twenty-two Marines and one Navy Corpsman of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment, who were killed in Iraq. Since most of the deceased Marines were from Ohio, it’s an Ohio woman artist, Anita Miller, who had a vision of the memorial and felt called to create it. The exhibit is true to its purpose: it’s like attending a group wake. In a large darkened circle, there are eight panels, each with two or three life-sized portraits of the fallen soldiers, most of them in their early 20s when they died. In front of each panel is a lit candle. Each soldier’s boots are displayed at the base of each portrait, many of them stuffed with pictures and notes from those who attend the exhibit and are moved to respond. Viewers are silent as they walk from panel to panel, many of them listening to a phone audio that gives a brief bio of the young man’s life, his dreams and aspirations and a touching anecdote, usually told to the artist by the dead Marine’s mother or wife or friend or child.
I carried the phone with me and wept at the stories and lives lost too soon. But I also wept because I had a running commentary by Travis who was at the Lima Company dam site/ aide station when the wounded and dead arrived. He had to put the remains in body bags and lift the severely wounded from the emergency truck. “I remember holding him,” Travis said point to one of the portraits. “I remember him because he was so big and heavy.” And then a few minutes later, “I don’t recognize many of them because their faces were blown away.
“There were 1,000 Marines guarding the dam where we were stationed,” Travis continued. “One out of twenty of us did not make it home. We were the hardest hit unit in the Iraq war.”
Travis was 21-years-old when he experienced this. He’s 34 years old now but still suffering the aftershocks. Which brings me to the most gripping part of the exhibition. In the middle of the circle is a sculptured piece titled, Silent Battle. It is dedicated to all the veterans who didn’t die on the battlefield but whose spirits and minds suffered severe wounds. The same artist, Anita Miller, created the piece by listening to the story of a young veteran who was on the verge of suicide (by the way, 20 veterans a day take their own lives) and sculpted his fears and terrors and anguish and lost hope. You see veterans put their hands on the statue and cry uncontrollably, mothers embrace the young soldier trying to offer comfort, others just stand in silent prayer. In a video that accompanies the exhibition the artist Miller explains that the statue is for many the first step in healing. It tells suffering veterans, their family members and loved ones, “you are not alone.”
“You go to the military for a lot of reasons,” Travis said. “Some go for ideals, some go out of a sense of duty and responsibility, some go because they need a job. But once you’re there—well, it’s war and it’s brutal. Only a few, if any, are prepared to deal with what happens to you inside because of it. I know that I wasn’t prepared.”
Travis said he brought the exhibition to Erie to help others, but it was healing for him, too. “I met so many people who are going through what I’m experiencing,” he said. “I could talk to them and now have a network of people to reach out to. I don’t feel alone anymore.”
World War I poet Wilfrid Owen's wrote, "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." The exhibition “Eyes of Freedom” is also about the subject of war the pity of war. It is a traveling poem whose poetry is in the pity.
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A blog by Mary Lou Kownacki
A personal journal captures what’s in the heart. Most of my adult life I’ve recorded my notes, brief reflections, poems, reactions to daily events in a journal. It is an ongoing source of monastic formation; the rich and raw material of life that helps shape my Monastery of the Heart. About a year ago, Old Monk began to appear on my journal’s pages. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, is the Monasteries of the Heart coordinator.
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