Casing the Colors: The End of the War in Iraq
March 2003-December 2011
I remember when my father came home from Vietnam. Having fought in Korea as well, this was the end of his second war. Our family reunited overseas delaying my father's reentry into life in the US. There were no parades and because my father stayed in the Corps as an active duty Marine, little seemed to change when we finally flew back to the States and moved into what would be the first in a succession of new billets, new homes, and new schools. Even for warriors, life goes on.
War stories weren't often told in my family. I learned more about my father's tour in Vietnam from Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War than I did from conversations around the dinner table. (My father is an important, though unnamed character in Caputo's book.) As a boy, I knew there were things I wouldn't ever truly understand and gave returning soldiers their private psychological space. As an adult, I understand that we all need to have our stories heard patiently and sympathetically. I have also learned that the fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers of those killed in action care deeply that their sons and daughters are not forgotten.
During the eight year span of the Iraq War, I have had the honor to connect with the families of two young men who gave their all. United States Marine Corporal Kemaphoom "Ahn" Chanawongse of Waterford, Connecticut was killed in action during operations on the outskirts of An Nasiriyah, Iraq on March 23, 2003. Chanawongse was assigned to 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. My painting Arlington, which is now part of the collection of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, was inspired by Ahn's funeral. Chanawongse was a Thai-American Buddhist, so his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery included saffron robed Buddhist monks as well as US Marines in their dress blues.
The painting began as an image of a US Marine in Iraq silhouetted against a gunpowdered sky at dusk. That painting was subsequently worked into and eventually over-painted with the present image when the reports and images in the New York Times of Ahn’s funeral brought back childhood memories of watching “taps” played at dusk during the Evening Parade at the Marine Corps Barracks in Washington DC. I met Ahn's courageous and inspiring parents in Washington DC when Arlington was exhibited at the Arts Club of Washington during The One Word Project exhibition which was curated by J.T. Kirkland and ran from August 28th through September 29th, 2007.
Earlier this year, I was asked by curator Sherry Moore to contribute a painting of United States Army 2nd Lieutenant Mark Daily to the Portraits of the Fallen Memorial. This memorial when completed will include portraits of all the service members from California killed during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the start of the project I had the honor to meet Mark's widow, Snejana "Janet" Hristova, at my studio and was inspired by her courage and resilience. She spoke tenderly of Mark and the media attention after his death.
Christopher Hitchens in his moving article on Mark for Vanity Fair described the young Lieutenant's bravery:
"Lieutenant Daily crossed from Kuwait to Iraq in November 2006, where he would be deployed with the "C," or "Comanche," Company of the Second Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment—General Custer's old outfit—in Mosul. On the 15th of January last, he was on patrol and noticed that the Humvee in front of him was not properly "up-armored" against I.E.D.'s. He insisted on changing places and taking a lead position in his own Humvee, and was shortly afterward hit by an enormous buried mine that packed a charge of some 1,500 pounds of high explosive."Christopher Hitchens goes on to share a telling portion of a letter that Mark Daily sent home from Iraq to his wife Janet:
"One thing I have learned about myself since I've been out here is that everything I professed to you about what I want for the world and what I am willing to do to achieve it was true. …
My desire to "save the world" is really just an extension of trying to make a world fit for you."
Like Mark I graduated from UCLA. My wife, MarySue Heilemann, is a tenured professor in Nursing at UCLA and teaches on ethics and the philosophy of science. To stir up the latent creativity in her graduate students, MarySue brought in the musician Peter Himmelman to lead a creativity session. As a friend of Peter's and at my wife's request, I attended the session and I ended up writing a song on my experiences painting Mark's portrait. Peter Himmelman added music to the lyrics and the song, Spit and Polish Blue, was finished for Veterans Day.
Written on the back of this photograph Mark Daily sent home from Mosul, Iraq is the phrase, "We carry a new world in our hearts." I included the phrase as a coda at the end of the song Spit and Polish Blue:
Spit and Polish Blue
I’m sitting in a classroom, the place where you first signed on
Matt Gallagher in the New York Times on Mark Daily
Portraits of the Fallen Project
Info on Peter Himmelman
The author Christopher Hitchens' piece on Mark Daily in Vanity Fair in 2007.
The One Word Project