When I first left the Marine Corps infantry in 2004, having two combat tours under my belt, I experienced several common issues of returning veterans. Alcohol abuse, violence, and the sort of despair that can lead to an abrupt finality. The worst part being that I thought I was alone. That the things I had lived through would be a burden to those around me if I were to speak of them.
I had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Writing for Media Arts and had begun working with artists to create exhibits focused around stories. Sometimes that meant sequential art, sometimes that meant acrylic, but artwork that went along with a context. I had found that the metaphor that artwork presents was able to, through conversation, tie people together that would otherwise have never spoken. They shared comments, then ideas, then themselves. It was the sort of interconnectedness that I’d always thought was essential to our social development.
What’s more, we were using these exhibits to raise money for local charities, providing context for those who were in need. Yet even though we put forth so much effort to tell other people’s stories, it took several years for me to even glance at my own.
But one day I was given an opportunity and I took it, having been offered a chance to give a TEDx talk about a moment that happened to me at the embassy in Kabul.
I knew I would give it my all. But I didn’t know how much that would shape my world.
Don’t get me wrong. It was rough. No one wants to stare down their own darkness. Their own flaws and failures. But I had reasoned that it would take courage to acknowledge my demons. To own my portion. And sure, there might have been some cry-typing, I’ll admit it. But the sense of relief was almost physical.
It was as though I had let escape a clawing shadow that was ripping its way to freedom from inside my chest. As though I was literally lighter for its departure. It wasn’t a total and perfect fix. I still had a lot to work through, but it was a good start. It helped me feel a semblance of belonging, my friends and family finally given the opportunity to know why I came back changed.
I’d also begun working with artists to create exhibits focused around stories. Sometimes that meant sequential art, sometimes that meant acrylic, but artwork that went along with a context. I had found that the metaphor that artwork presents was able to, through conversation, tie people together that would otherwise have never spoken. They shared comments, then ideas, then themselves. It was the sort of interconnectedness that I’d always thought was essential to our social development.
What’s more, we were using these exhibits to raise money for local charities. It was only a matter of time before one of those charities was veteran-centric. And so, back in 2012, given the opportunity to share the experience I had when I wrote my story, I collected stories from local veterans, paired those stories with local artists, printed out the stories into a book, and put on a fundraising art show.
Armies march off of beans, bullets, and bandaids, but… I couldn’t guarantee food. Bullets and Bandaids would have to do. And it was a hit. It was 4 hours worth of crowds pausing in front of each piece to read the story, then view the artwork based off of it.
However, though it was considered successful for the amount of people that showed up, it was even more so when I heard the comments from both the participants, as well as those that bought tickets. Veterans and civilians, speaking openly about conflict, pain, resilience, and healing.
It was humbling and satisfying on levels I hope for everyone.
And I felt a little lighter.
As someone who had spent so much time in a world of hyperbolic violence, sometimes self-inflicted, I wanted to dedicate my life to healing. So I did it the only way I knew how. By giving people the agency to speak their truth. To allow their souls to exhale the smoke in their lungs. To give hope.
“There’s two kinds of good people in this world.
Those that fight off darkness and those that fight toward light.”
I had also become a fellow at a veteran-centric nonprofit, where the final phase was taking an active step toward bettering our community. As I’m sure you guessed, the second iteration of Bullets and Bandaids in 2016 was born. And because I had been able to learn from the previous show, we were able to reach more veterans, more artists, and this time the book we printed had the artwork next to the story it was based off.
Again, it was a success, this time as a touring art project, traveling to two different cities in South Carolina. And again, I heard the conversations, saw the understanding, and knew the world was slightly more positive.
Fast forward a few years, a few sore joints that aren’t healing quite as well, and I was back in South Carolina. I had become part owner of a media and production company, but it just wasn’t scratching the itch to help the world in which I lived. I was getting restless, in spite of the workload. And so, on the advice of a friend, Bullets and Bandaids officially became a 501(c)3 nonprofit on March 3, 2019. Just in time to build up momentum before COVID hit.
But we have come back far stronger. Because of the impact COVID had, we were forced to become an online program, rather than a touring one. Though this hobbled us financially, it allowed us to reach a high water mark we had when we began. That watermark was to have two people from opposite ends of the same conflict be in one exhibit. As a touring project, it wasn’t feasible for us to ship the artwork to the cities involved, so it wasn’t in the cards, at least immediately. But if we’re online…
So we began collecting stories and artists from around the world. Argentina, Liberia, the Netherlands, Israel, Palestine, Syria, all of these and more will also be represented in the next exhibit, alongside 26 veterans’ stories from the southeast of the United States.
We do this for the honor we hold for one another. For the potential that lies in each of us, individually and as a whole. We bring together experiences from people in hometowns, as well as across the world.
Because our mission is to provide agency for veterans and civilians to work with one another in a touring art program that spans the world. Through this, we can take an active role in bettering what Carl Sagan called “The only world we’ve ever known.” Because of this, our impact is immeasurable.
We are far more than a nonprofit.
We’re a movement.