The parades, poppies and silences of Remembrance Sunday are a sombre means of reflecting upon the sacrifice of those who died in war, but what of those who survived and came home? “Remember the dead, but don’t forget the living” is a familiar refrain. Returning veterans have historically encountered problems adjusting to civilian life even if they have not been physically scarred by their experiences. Recent wars in places like Afghanistan and Iraq have created a new generation of veterans trying to cope, and as a consequence new ways of trying to help them have been and are being developed.
There are a variety of schemes and projects that have been established to help these brave men and women, and a particularly innovative example of such a project originated on the west coast of Canada. Last Friday I went to see an art installation at Canada House which is the work of the Man/Art/Action Project which is linked to the Veterans Transition Network (VTN). This has helped veterans to recover from what are referred to as the ‘invisible wounds’ of war (such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and survivor guilt) by having them work on art projects with artists, actors, counsellors – such as Dr Marv Westwood, Professor in Counselling Psychology at the University of British Columbia, who has been internationally recognised for his work with VTN – and even Native wood-carvers. The installation is in fact in three parts – two works of art and a theatre piece.
Lest We Forget Canada is a mural that was created to raise awareness of the impact that Canadian involvement in Afghanistan had on the 40,000 soldiers who served there and their families. It consists of 162 panels, each of which commemorates one of the Canadian soldiers who died there. Made from the pages of old military training pamphlets, it’s the brainchild of the Vancouver-based multimedia artist Foster Eastman and it was made by veterans. The idea for this came from the notion that men have a tendency to share more information when working with their hands, and many veterans involved found the project therapeutic as they began to talk about their experiences – with counsellors as well as with each other – while taking part. For many, talking about their experiences can be an important first step.
The mural has toured Canada and the backs of each panel have been signed by the people who made it and the families of the soldiers commemorated on it. The idea of families signing it was not an intention until the mural was shown to (then) Prime Minister Harper and a group of bereaved families, and some of the children found the panels with their fathers’ names on them and went round the back to write messages. When HRH Prince Harry – himself an Afghanistan veteran who has done much work with veterans of recent wars through events such as the Invictus Games – went to see the mural at Canada House, he made a point of finding the eight panels bearing the names of Canadian soldiers who had died while serving with his regiment and signing them as ‘Harry, Capt. Wales’.
Alongside the mural is the Veterans Tribute Pole which was Fraser’s next project. It is made of two coffins, symbolising “the men who came home in a box, literally and mentally”, Fraser explained when I went to visit. Like the mural, it was made by veterans but with this they went through the traditional Native process of carving totem poles, beginning with a healing song. The varnish was stripped from the coffins, which were covered with satellite images of Kandahar and Kabul along with the names of Canadian Army ranks which were carved into the wood. It too has toured Canada.
The third part of the exhibit was Contact! Unloaded, a theatre piece performed by four veterans alongside two actors. It was a moving and at times emotionally-charged piece in which the veterans spoke of and acted out their experiences around an attempt to recite the St Crispin’s Day Speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V – proud rhetoric of honour and brotherhood interspersed with first-hand accounts of the grim realities of modern war. For those involved, the project has – like the mural and the pole – proved therapeutic, especially when performed in front of their families. In the question-and-answer session that followed, it was noted that veterans who have seen the piece have often come forward afterwards and asked how they can become involved with VTN. Fraser commented that he has even been approached by veterans of the Second World War; “they told us we were sixty years too late,” he explained.
What people like Fraser and Marv are doing is truly impressive, and I was glad that I had the chance to go and see it. Friday, alas, marked the final performance of Contact! Unload at Canada House, although both the Lest We Forget Canada mural and the Veterans Tribute Pole will be on display at Canada House until 25th November (all visitors are required to register in advance).